Freeman gets it done with clutch hit vs. Giants

5:37 AM UTC

Guardians center fielder Myles Straw, second baseman Andr?s Gim?nez and infielder Tyler Freeman spent Monday night together in San Francisco.

The trio hung out and chatted about baseball. Freeman mentioned the difficult stretch he’s endured over the last few weeks in the times he’s been given opportunities to get in the lineup. But Straw had some words of encouragement for him: “Just go out there and have good at-bats.”

Just a few hours later, he did just that, serving a 100.1 mph single into center field to lift the Guardians to a 3-1 victory over the Giants on Tuesday night at Oracle Park. While Cleveland got itself back in the win column, the Twins also enjoyed a 3-2 win over the Rays, meaning the Guardians’ deficit in the AL Central remains 7 1/2 games.

Because Cleveland’s playoff odds continue to grow smaller, the focus of the final weeks of the regular season can officially switch to preparing for 2024. One of the biggest questions the team needs to answer before Opening Day is who will be the starting shortstop next season. And if Tuesday taught us anything, it’s that the answer is far from finalized.

As much as the Guardians are trying to get Gabriel Arias settled into that position due to his exceptional defense, his bat hasn’t taken off this year as much as he would’ve hoped. He’s hitting just .209 with a .632 OPS in 113 games. And while the last few weeks have shown more promise than most of the season, he cannot find a consistent rhythm, as he suffered an 0-for-4 night with four strikeouts Tuesday.

The more Arias struggles to prove he’s the clear-cut winner of this position battle — one that’s most assuredly going to continue all through Spring Training — the more looks guys like Freeman, Brayan Rocchio, Jose Tena and eventually Juan Brito will deserve. But because Freeman’s playing time has been sporadic, it’s been difficult for the infielder, whom MLB Pipeline rated a 60-grade hitter as a prospect last season, to settle in offensively, prompting Straw to offer his piece of advice on Monday night.

Freeman followed orders. He worked a 10-pitch at-bat against Giants starter Sean Manaea in the first before striking out. Then, with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth, San Francisco turned to its bullpen, calling on Ryan Walker — a right-handed sidearmer.

“We had [Gim?nez ready to pinch-hit] there, but their guy they brought in is actually tougher on lefties,” Guardians manager Terry Francona explained.

So, Freeman was left to have the big opportunity. As he stood with hitting coach Chris Valaika during Walker’s warmup pitches, he developed a game plan and stuck with it.

“I said I’m going to be aggressive here,” Freeman told sideline reporter Andre Knott postgame, “and he just left a sinker up, closed my eyes and got a hit.”

On the first pitch he saw, he sent the single into center field that plated two runs and eventually led to Cleveland’s victory.

“I mean, that first at-bat, I know he struck out but he fouled off a bunch of tough pitches and Manea was pretty sharp those first two innings,” Straw said. “Then to come in and get that sidearm righty and to ambush that first pitch and not even see how the ball is moving is pretty impressive.”

Even as a prospect, Freeman was projected by some to eventually move from shortstop to second base. He’s also shown the ability to fill in for Jos? Ram?rez at third base when needed. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him continue to take on this utility role even beyond 2023.

But with a timely hit and an impressive double play that he turned at second base in the fourth inning, running over the bag while throwing across his body to first base, he offered up a friendly reminder that he, too, is certainly going to continue to be in the mix as Cleveland searches for its perfect middle-infield duo in 2024.

“It is different,” Freeman said of the sporadic playing time. “Just got to understand the role I’m in and trying to adapt as much as possible to it. Like I said, I’ll do anything to help this team win. If that’s my role, so be it.”