CUMBERLAND, Ga. -- The Atlanta Braves felt like things were turning around for the better.
In the midst of a long rebuild, the Braves made their way up to second place in the NL East this week, albeit a division where there are the Washington Nationals and everyone else. But at least they were in first among everyone else.
Then, the man the Braves have developed into the face of the franchise, the centerpiece that everything else would be built around, got plunked. Freddie Freeman was hit in the left wrist by Aaron Loup on Wednesday. Freeman swears it was not intentional. But it was determined it was fractured, and he will be out 8-10 weeks.
Demoralizing doesn't even begin to describe it.
It was the tipping point on a crazy Wednesday that also saw a Braves pitcher get called an anti-gay slur and Jose Bautista flip his bat on a home run that the Braves took offense to, even though they were up by four and ultimately won the heated series.
But as news came out about Freeman's injury, the disappointment around the Braves was palpable, no matter how much Freeman tried to stay positive about it by saying it was the best bone in the wrist that could have broke and no ligament damage, which means no surgery.
Manager Brian Snitker said after Thursday's loss he even felt better about it after speaking with Freeman.
"It’s been a tough day," Snitker said after the Blue Jays' 9-0 win against the Braves that included three home runs against ace Julio Teheran. "He was in good spirits, realistic about everything and kind of not a good feeling for all of us when we lose a guy like that. Not only a player, but the person he is and what he brings to our team on the field, how he does it everyday, the professionalism. He leaves it out there everyday. You know he’s going to show up to play everyday and that was tough for everybody."
The Braves signed James Loney, a free agent who played for the New York Mets last season. He's a veteran and hit .265 last season with nine home runs and 34 RBIs. But compare those numbers to Freeman's that projected an MVP-like season. Freeman was tied for the most home runs in the MLB at 14 and the best OPS in the league at 1.209. He was hitting .341 and had 35 RBIs. And then there's what the stats can't tell you about: his leadership.
"The more disappointing fact is we started playing good baseball as a team. I never play this game for myself," Freeman said. "When you win seven of the last nine games, put together the last five, six games we've done, this is more of a devastating blow to me. Couldn't care less about personal statistics at this point."
Loney is in Triple-A for now. The Braves have others they can turn to, like utility guy Jace Peterson. But he's struggling at the plate and is playing first base for the first time in his career. There's catcher Kurt Suzuki who can play in the infield, but doesn't guarantee stability at the first base position nor crush the ball like Freeman. New guys Danny Santana and Rio Ruiz are a dramatic drop-off statistics wise compared to Freeman. Plus, guys are already filling in for third baseman Adonis Garcia who is on the 10-day DL. The Braves promised there's no chance Ryan Howard will return. He couldn't even hit .200 at Gwinnett.
No matter who the Braves turn to just won't compare.
"We can't find anyone that's going to do what Freddie did," general manager John Coppolella said. "He was arguably the best player in the whole league."
And that's why-- even with a new, spectacular ballpark that was supposed to help distract the fans from the continuing rebuild with all the new bells and whistles -- the feeling around the Braves right now is bleak.
The dog days of summer are right in front of the Braves, and they have to push through them without Freeman. Freeman's injury could act as a rallying cry, an inspiration for the rest of the team to step up. But that would have had to have started Thursday night. And it just wasn't there.
"Just one of those games you want to put behind you and start a new win streak tomorrow," Snitker said.
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