JUPITER, Fla. — Cardinals third baseman David Freese hit .397 and drove in 21 runs in 18 postseason games last year, including three rather memorable RBIs during the classic ending to Game 6 of the World Series.
For tying and then winning Game 6, for driving in the tying runs in Game 7 and for all he did last October, Freese was voted the World Series Most Valuable Player after also being named MVP of the league championship series, in which he hit .545 against Milwaukee.
Move forward to April 2012, and the start of the Cardinals’ defense of their World Series title. That begins Wednesday night at the new Marlins Park down the road in Miami.
Freese, when healthy, was a more than competent player last season, hitting .297 with 55 runs batted in for just 97 games. But now the bar of expectation probably has been raised a few notches by the fan base.
“No doubt,” said Matt Holliday, Freese’s teammate and good friend. “I do think the expectations are going to be a little inflated. That kind of comes with the territory of being the World Series MVP.
“That’s the one thing about the postseason. You expect a lot out of him but let’s don’t pretend he’s going to bat .450 with 50 home runs.
“Let’s just hope he can stay healthy and we’ll take the numbers he puts up because I think they’ll be good. Very good.”
If anyone should know about expectations, it is Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire, who also is former home-run king. In 1998, according to expectations, McGwire was supposed to hit a home run every game for the Cardinals. When he didn’t, he was barraged with questions.
McGwire, who didn’t understand why the media wanted to talk to him every night, said the only way he dealt with that expectation was to accept it and embrace it.
“It was not easy because it’s something you never expect,” McGwire said. “And then all of a sudden it’s there.
“I had some talks with some really good friends. When you accept things and accept where you’re supposed to be in life, then you can move on and really enjoy it.”
McGwire, who preaches the “mental” as much or even more than he does the “physical” side of hitting, has broached the subject of “expectation” with Freese although McGwire said those discussions would remain private.
Expectations, said McGwire “are what the media says. David knows what he can do. But David can only be David. That’s all he can be.
“Let’s remind everybody that this is only David’s third year in the big leagues. He’s still learning. Does he have all the ability in the world to do what he did in October for 162 games? Absolutely.”
‘I’m going to be me’
Freese, the Lafayette High product who will be 29 this month, professes that outside expectations are not a concern for him.
“I’m not too worried about that,” he said. “I’m going to be me. When I’m healthy, I’ve shown what I can do at this level.
“Maybe from a fan’s perspective, expectations have risen. But my expectations have risen, too. The more you play in this game and the more you succeed, the more you want out of yourself to help your team.“
There are no magic numbers for Freese.
“Nothing statistical or anything. It’s playing a full season, or being available every game,” Freese said.
He never has played 100 regular-season games in one season in the big leagues because of either ankle ailments or a broken left hand he suffered last May 1 when he was hit by a pitch from Atlanta’s Scott Linebrink, now a teammate.
Freese finished the Grapefruit League season with a .188 average with 16 strikeouts in 48 at-bats — or one in every three.
But, manager Mike Matheny said, “We’ve seen some production, too. He has that knack of being able to drive in runs.”
Despite his poor average, Freese had three homers and 10 runs batted in.
“You’d much rather be that guy and have those (good) numbers, than not,” Matheny said. “But I think he’s matured enough as a player to know that there’s every reason for him to believe he’s going to go out and be successful.“
McGwire, asked if he was concerned by Freese’s poor average said, “Absolutely not.”
Freese admitted he had been struggling a bit with his swing this spring but said, “I’m not too worried about it.
“When these lights come on on Wednesday, I’ll be ready to go.”
Holliday, who hits in the same group as Freese before the game and often spends time with Freese in the batting cage for extra sessions, observed that Freese had been “a little frustrated with his swing. But I hit with him (Saturday) and he found a little something. He had kind of slipped out of it. He went back through his notes from last year and found a little something to help him. His swing looked amazing.”
Holliday said he was impressed with how Freese handled his sudden adulation and then was able to turn back to baseball when it became February and time for camp.
“The onslaught is behind him as far as the stuff he wasn’t expecting,” Holliday said. “We’re back to everyday business and the grind of figuring this thing out the best we can.
“This is probably the easiest part for him because he can kind of get back to the challenge of baseball. Hitting can be so frustrating at times it’s easy to move on and turn the page.
“We bounce things off each other as far as hitting goes but I don’t try to make it too complicated or give him any (advice). He’s handled it great.”
And, Holliday said, “I’m not surprised. While those obviously were awesome feats that he did, he’s ready to turn the page and have a great season.”
McGwire said he didn’t think Freese had any problem with his swing.
The coach said he concentrated on what was upstairs.
“We’ve had long talks,” McGwire said. “He understands now that to succeed in this game at this level for a long period of time, it’s all mental. There’s always fine-tuning in the cage and all that stuff, but understanding that this game is mental is huge.”
Freese was aware his spring average was bad.
“Some guys have good springs; some don’t,” Freese said. “People on the outside of this clubhouse probably attack that a little more. But there’s plenty of guys who have had rough springs and go on to be successful. We don’t worry about it as much as other people.”
Playing every day
Coming off surgeries on both ankles in 2010 — the one on the right ankle was more serious — Freese was handled gingerly last spring training. He hardly ever played back-to-back games.
“Last year, it was tough,” Freese said. “I think they went into spring training wishing it was two months later. But I grinded it out. This year, I feel good, running around and playing defense.
“I’m going to take pride in being out there every day.“
His ankles might have affected him more in the field than on offense and it has taken Freese a long time to get back to the defensive excellence he was considered to have in the minors.
“It’s frustrating at times,” he said. ” But I’m getting there. And I definitely want to prove that I can hold my own ... nine (innings), all year.”
Former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa often lifted Freese for Daniel Descalso late in games, including the ninth inning of World Series Game 7, to ensure good defense at third and to rest Freese.
Said Freese, “I didn’t like it at all. And Tony knew that. Tony cares about his players, I’m sure. He cared about me. And I’ll always remember that about him. That’s one of the big reasons why I’ve been able to do what I’ve done while I’ve been on the field in the last few years. Some days I was hurting. He definitely took care of me.
“It was a ’win-win.’ It rested me and put in Descalso, a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman. It worked but ...
“I’ve been a nine-inning player my whole life.”
Matheny, in fact, has made a point this spring of saying he wants Freese to play nine this year.
Said Freese, “If he’s talking like that, then I’m all for it.”
Liking the lineup
For the first time in 12 years, the Cardinals lineup card won’t have the name “Pujols” written on it almost daily.
“Having that name alone on your lineup card is huge,” Freese said. “When Albert’s not in there, it’s definitely a different take. It takes away the thunder, so to speak.
“But when you look at our lineup card and if all cylinders are clicking, it can be pretty scary.
“You get a veteran presence like (Carlos) Beltran on that card, that’s big.”
The new No. 3 hitter will be Holliday and while the latter sees good things from the former, Freese sees potentially monster accomplishments from Holliday.
“I’m around Matt more than most guys (and) I’m excited about what’s going to happen this year,” Freese said. “He always strives to be the best, but there’s something going on. Even before this spring started, there was that look in his eyes and what he did in the offseason. I’m interested to see what he’s going to put up.
“I think Matt definitely embraces the role he has this year.”
Freese, by nature of what he did and where he did it — in the city where he grew up — is almost forced to embrace his role.
“Sometimes, it’s hectic,” he said. “It’s definitely a different environment. I wouldn’t ask to do this in any other city.
“It’s a blast. I’ll always have 2011. But I want more. I’ll always want more.
“You win a ring, that’s great. I want to win another one with these guys.”
Contact Hummel at email@example.com or (314) 340-8196.