Walk-off latest evidence in Freeman's ROY case
With Kimbrel, Atlanta boasts two legitimate contenders for Award
ATLANTA -- The 2011 National League Rookie of the Year should be one of the Atlanta Braves. The only question is: Which one?
It is a tribute to the Braves' organization strength that it has produced two rookies who are good enough to create a major impact in the Major Leagues at the very start of their careers, in the same season. Those two are first baseman Freddie Freeman, 21, and closer Craig Kimbrel, 23.
There are other viable candidates for NL Rookie of the Year and one or more of them could make a big push between now and October. But at the moment, Freeman and Kimbrel set the pace.
The Braves may not have much of a shot to overtake Philadelphia in the NL East, but Atlanta leads the NL Wild Card standings by five games over its nearest competitor, the San Francisco Giants.
In that regard, there was a genuinely big game between the Giants and the Braves on Monday night. And it also turned out to be a showcase for Freddie Freeman's case for NL Rookie of the Year.
The Braves won, 5-4, on a dramatic ninth-inning comeback, the culmination of which was Freeman's walk-off two-run single off one of the game's best closers, Brian Wilson.
It was a classic confrontation in a classic situation. When Freeman came to the plate, San Francisco led, 4-3, with two outs and the bases loaded. This meeting went as far as it could go, a full count, before Freeman singled up the middle, to score two runs and decide the issue in favor of the Braves.
When Freeman was asked if this was his biggest moment in the Majors he responded: "So far, yes." That was a sound, reasonable and composed answer. But composure well beyond his years is a trait that Freeman has already demonstrated.
"Yes, he's 21 years old, but you look at the at-bats, you look at the way he's played, this guy's maturity level is way above his age," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He doesn't panic. He doesn't let the situation get him excited or get him out of his plan."
This situation perfectly illustrated that point. Freeman was down in the count, 1-2 to Wilson, but he took two relatively close pitches to get to a full count. At 2-2, Freeman said he recalled that Wilson had struck him out in San Francisco on a high fastball. He had not yet seen that pitch in this at-bat from Wilson, so he figured it was coming. When he saw the 2-2 pitch above his hands, he took it, and count went to 3-2.
That's one mark of an intelligent and composed hitter. Next was the payoff pitch.
"On 3-2 from him, you're going to get a fastball," Freeman said. "It's a matter of whether it's going to be 96 or 91 [mph]."
The 3-2 offering, Freeman said, was a two-seam fastball "middle, middle-in" -- a pitch he could handle. He sent it back up the middle, and that sent the Braves to a victory.
Freeman leads NL rookies in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage (.296/.361/.470). He is second in home runs, first in runs batted in. His defensive work at first base has been well above average.
On this Monday evening, Freeman was front and center. But Kimbrel's overall contribution to the Braves cannot be ignored. Typically in this type of balloting, everything else being relatively equal, the voters lean toward the regular player. Whatever happens shouldn't diminish the work of Kimbrel. If he has to settle for Rookie Pitcher of the Year, that's not a bad beginning.
With 36 saves in 41 save opportunities, Kimbrel leads not only the NL but the Majors in saves. Wilson is second in the NL at 35. Kimbrel has already set the Braves' franchise record for saves by a rookie. He is currently tied for third in saves by a rookie with Todd Worrell, who had 36 for St. Louis in 1986. In second is Kazuhiro Sasaki, who had 37 saves for Seattle in 2000. Sasaki was 32 years old and already a veteran of Japanese baseball when he had that "rookie" performance. At the top of the list, and well within range, is Neftali Feliz, who had 40 saves in a brilliant 2010 campaign for the pennant-winning Texas Rangers.
And Kimbrel is piling up these saves for a postseason contender. That is the beauty of the work of the Braves' Rookie of the Year candidates. They are producing outstanding individual performances, but their work is playing a significant role in the Braves' collective success.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.