Hometown boy David Freese made his return to Busch Stadium and the scene of one of the greatest moments in World Series history Friday.
But for the first time in his 235 games there, he was wearing the visiting team’s colors as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are in town for a three game weekend series with their Central Division rivals.
“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought of this day, just to be back in this stadium,” he said. “It’s all about these fans. That’s what makes this place great. Day in and day out, they come out to cheer on the Cardinals. Adding the rivalry these two clubs now have makes it even more special.”
It was Freese, of course, who sent Game 6 of the 2011 World Series to extra innings with a two-out, two-strike, two-run triple in the bottom of the ninth, then won it with a walk-off home run in the 11th. The Cardinals went on to beat the Texas Rangers in Game 7 and clinch the franchise’s 11th World Series championship.
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Freese didn’t get to enjoy his hero’s welcome Friday, though, since his homecoming was timed with the activation of Pirates’ third baseman Jung-Ho Kang from the disabled list.
Kang suffered a serious knee injury in a Sept. 17 game against the Chicago Cubs and has been rehabbing from the surgery ever since. The team had said he would be eased into action, but Kang blasted his way back into the lineup with two home runs in the Pirates’ 4-2 win.
He hit .287 last season, splitting time between third base and shortstop, and finished third in National League Rookie of the Year balloting.
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought of this day, just to be back in this stadium. It’s all about these fans. That’s what makes this place great. Day in and day out, they come out to cheer on the Cardinals. Adding the rivalry these two clubs now have makes it even more special.
David Freese, Pittsburgh Pirates’ third baseman
Pittsburgh signed Freese to a one-year, $3-million contract on March 11 to cover Kang’s position. He has started at third base in 25 of the Pirates’ 28 games and hit safely in 19 of those contests batting mostly from the third spot in the lineup.
Friday, with Cardinals’ left-hander Kevin Siegrist on the mound and the pitchers’ spot due up second for Pittsburgh in the top of the ninth, it looked like Freese might finally make his appearance as a pinch hitter before the crowd of 43,093. But St. Louis turned to right-hander Seth Maness to keep Freese on the bench.
Freese, who turned 33 last Thursday and recently got engaged, is hitting .291 on the season, but is 12-for-37 (.324) in his last nine starts. Kang’s return to the roster means nothing new to Freese, who says he understood his role from the onset.
“I can view it as a different role — which it is — but to simplify it I still just have to be ready to hit and be ready to take the field,” he said. “It’s up to me to mentally prepare and do what’s asked of me, which is to play ball.”
During a 7-1 loss to the Cubs on Tuesday, Freese played his first four big league innings at second base, but doesn’t anticipate he’ll take much time away from All-Star Josh Harrison, who entered the series leading the Pirates’ starters with a .320 average.
“It was fun, but If I’m back there again at some point, I don’t know,” Freese said of playing second base. “But I may take a little extra work in there just in case.”
Freese is a 2001 graduate of Lafayette High School in Wildwood and was drafted out of the University of South Alabama by the San Diego Padres. He arrived in St. Louis in a trade for Jim Edmonds.
Dave was very gracious and understood that the fans have always been very, very good to him. He’s done a nice job of just being grateful for opportunities and how the fans have endeared themselves to him. I think he’s reciprocated well.
Mike Matheny, Cardinals manager
Freese started just 88 games for the Cardinals in 2011, but secured his place in franchise lore with his now famous Game 6 performance. With 21 postseason RBIs, Freese was named MVP of both the league championship series and World Series.
The Cardinals traded Freese and pitcher Fernando Salas to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for outfielders Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk in November 2013.
“I think there’s a way to not just play here, but also leave here,” said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. “Dave was very gracious and understood that the fans have always been very, very good to him. It was kind of a unique situation, too — a local kid and this was his team growing up.
There’s going to be some memories with what he did while he was here, especially in the World Series. They’re some of the greatest memories that some people ever have in the game of baseball that he was a part of. I think it goes both ways. He’s done a nice job of just being grateful for opportunities and how the fans have endeared themselves to him. I think he’s reciprocated well.”
Freese says he hasn’t been to Busch Stadium since departing the Cardinals’ clubhouse, but has continued to follow the team through its playoff appearances the last two seasons from his home in the nearby Central West End.
“It’s funny when (second baseman Kolten) Wong hit the walk-off — What was it, two years ago? — I’m at my condo and I hear the explosions and it’s still like a one-one count, because of the television delay,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, Wong is going to go deep.’ I yelled it down the hall and told my dog before it even happened.”