Cody Bellinger raised his right arm toward the heavens as he touched home plate. Yasiel Puig followed him and pointed down the first-base line.
There, a couple of feet from the bag, David Freese extended both of his index fingers in the direction of the Dodgers bench. An eerie silence blanketed SunTrust Park.
Moments like these were supposed to be only in Freese’s past. Freese was now 35, almost eight years removed from the night when he forever etched himself into St. Louis’ collective memory.
Only here he was again, on the October stage with which he will always remain associated, clapping to celebrate a sixth-inning single that drove in the equalizing and go-ahead runs in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. The 6-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves on Monday secured a series victory, as well as a place in the NL Championship Series against the Milwaukee Brewers.
“You never know if you’re going to be in the postseason,” Freese said. “You never know if you’re going to get back.”
Freese started the season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He expected to finish it with them.
He was still with the Pirates on Aug. 31. By this point, they had no chance of reaching the postseason. The only way he could be included on a postseason roster was for a contending team to acquire him by the end of the day.
“Next thing you know, I’m on the plane at 5 a.m., going to L.A. to hang out with these guys,” Freese said. “It’s crazy.”
The surprise confirmed a long-standing belief.
“You never know what this game is going to give you, what opportunities arise for you,” he said. “You just got to be ready. That’s what I learned over the years. Whether you’re in high school, college, whatever, just be ready. You don’t have to be the best player in the world, you don’t have to make the most money, but you’re going to have a shot to do something cool. I learned that early in my career.”
Specifically, in 2011, when he was 28, playing for the St. Louis Cardinals and still looking to establish himself as a major league player.
He was the most valuable player of the NLCS that year.
His greatest moment came in Game 6 of the World Series. The Cardinals trailed the Texas Rangers, three games to two. The Cardinals were losing the game 7-5. Freese stepped into the batter’s box with two on and two outs. His team was down to its last strike when Freese tripled to drive in two runs and send the game into extra innings. Freese blasted a walk-off home run in the 11th inning.
The Cardinals won the series in seven games and Freese was named the series MVP.
Freese played in the NLCS in 2012 and another World Series in 2013, losing this time to the Boston Red Sox. He was traded to the Angels the following season and played in an American League Division Series with them.
Until last week, he hadn’t played in a postseason game since then.
The Dodgers traded for him primarily because they were looking for another right-handed hitter to bolster their lineup against left-handed pitchers. He batted .385 for them in 19 regular-season games.
The move forced him to accept playing in fewer games, as the left-handed-hitting Max Muncy or Cody Bellinger typically started when the opposition started a right-handed pitcher.
“We understand the talent on this roster,” Freese said. “We all want to be out there, but we all know our time’s going to come up at some point in the game, some point in the series.”
But he became much more to the Dodgers than their part-time first baseman. When players and coaches speak about Freese, they talk about him almost as reverentially as they do about Chase Utley.
The team’s young players have learned from him. The team’s veterans have gained confidence by playing alongside him.
“He just tells us what he thinks up there,” the 23-year-old Bellinger said. “It’s very basic, but it obviously works.”
Justin Turner was equally complimentary.
“He’s a professional guy, a professional hitter,” Turner said. “He’s very likeable. Guys flock to him. He leaves a good impression on a lot of young guys.”
Freese was humbled by their words.
“Justin Turner’s one of the biggest professionals I’ve been around, the way he goes about it, the way he plays the game,” Freese said. “To turn around and hear quotes that he said about me, for sure, that feels good. I’m not going to lie.”
Freese’s experience comes with an unusual sense of calmness that allows him to deliver in pressure situations. His pinch-hit at-bat in the sixth inning was an example.
The Dodgers were down 2-1. There were two outs and runners on the corners. Manager Dave Roberts called on Freese to hit in the pitcher’s spot to face left-hander Jonny Venters. Once Freese was announced, Braves manager Brian Snitker replaced Venters with right-hander Brad Brach.
Freese worked the count to 3-2 and sent a 96-mph fastball back up the middle past diving Braves shortstop Charlie Culberson.
Freese said the play unfolded in slow motion.
“That’s through,” he initially thought.
“Oh, wait,” he reconsidered.
A feeling of relief came over him as he glanced toward Culberson as he ran to first base and saw the baseball reach the outfield grass.
“I was pumped,” he said.
The Dodgers were, too. Bellinger scored. Puig had stolen second base during Freese’s at-bat, allowing him also score. The Dodgers were ahead 3-2. They never trailed again.