This is why — and how — major league ballplayers are best at settling their own feuds.
By the time Sean Nolin plunked Freddie Freeman in the first inning of Wednesday night’s 4-2 Washington Nationals’ victory over Atlanta’s Braves, pitcher Will Smith’s apparent vendetta on Juan Soto the night before was already taken care of.
Freeman and his teammates used the “unwritten rules” to quickly settle the brief beanball battle before it got out of hand.
And it was was Atlanta’s Freeman, one of the most notorious Nats’ killers in the game — and by all accounts one of its nicest guys — demonstrating that he he was fine taking one in the hip if it prevented another Bryce Harper–Hunter Strickland situation.
In walking off the field and putting his arm around Soto, his fellow No. 3 hitter, Freeman provided cover for Nolin and Nationals manager Davey Martinez and signaled that even Smith’s own teammates probably felt he was out of line in drilling Soto Tuesday night.
Soto and Freeman both are popular in their own clubhouses and among among their big league peers, with reputations as good-guy superstars.
And it was Freeman who sent the message that even superstars on division rivals have each other’s backs.
Smith’s beef with Soto goes back to last season, when Soto strayed too far from the batter’s box while trying to get a look at the Braves’ reliever warming up in the eighth inning of an August game.
Then Soto hit a home run off of Smith in the ninth and the two exchanged stares and words as Soto rounded the bases.
So on Tuesday night, Smith threw Soto a slider out of the zone away, then came back with a 94 MPH fastball to Soto’s back.
Martinez blew off the question of retaliation in Tuesday’s postgame zoom session with reporters.
“No. Honestly, I haven’t thought about it,” he said.
Not even a hint of anger in his pregame remarks Wednesday.
“Hey, look,” the fourth-year skipper explained, “we’re going to go play the game and play to compete and try to go 1-0 today. I’m not going to get into that whole fiasco. I know that they had some words before. I don’t know what transpired yesterday, but we’re going to go out there today and try to win a baseball game.”
When Soto was hit, many a fan’s mind flashed back to Memorial Day, 2017, when Strickland felt he had to pay Harper back for hitting two homers off him in the 2014 NL Division Series and staring him down after an especially long shot in Game 4.
But unlike Harper after Strickland beaned him, Soto didn’t charge the mound, no punches were thrown, and no benches emptied.
After reacting in obvious pain, Soto just headed to first base.
Freeman did exactly the same thing in the bottom of the first on Wednesday after Nolin delivered the first pitch of Freeman’s first at-bat behind the Atlanta first baseman’s shoulders and the second to the lefty hitter’s right hip. Home plate umpire Lance Barksdale quickly convinced his colleagues that Nolin should be ejected.
“I talked to him and he said the ball slipped and he tried to go in,” Martinez told reporters after Wednesday’s game. “Said the first one slipped, the second one he tried to go in.”
Freeman wore it and took his base like a pro, but even in sending a message, he wouldn’t stop trying to win.
After a hard slide into second on a force play to end the inning, he challenged the call before putting his arm around Soto’s shoulders as the two teams took their sides.
The exact words between the two young superstars walked off the field together may have been private, but in embracing Soto, Freeman told everyone who cared to look that that he quite literally had Soto’s back.
“I said, ‘I respect your game,’” Freeman told reporters after last night’s game. “It’s one of the best young hitters in this game, unfortunately, I have to see it 19 times a year, and it was all just having a nice conversation. I think we both understand how the game works, so that’s all it kind of was.”
“I just asked him if he was okay, and he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m okay, I’m fine, they just got me a little bit on my belt,’ that’s it, ” Soto said.
Soto told the MASN postgame show he appreciated Freeman’s sportsmanship and support.
“I feel really bad that sometimes — how the team has gotta take care of it, but it feels good,” Soto said. “He takes care of everybody.”
Then Freeman approached the Nationals’ dugout, where manager Davey Martinez greeted him with a fist bump, and the two exchanged apparently non-confrontational words before Freeman returned to his position.
“I talked to him for a minute and he said he was good. I said, ‘Hey, look, I never tell anyone to hit anyone, ever,’ and I have the utmost respect for Freddie,” Martinez said after the win in Wednesday’s game. “He understands that we both respect the game very much, and I respect him, and the feelings are mutual.”
Freeman said he was making sure there were no hard feelings.
“Oh, yeah, I understand the game of baseball,” he told reporters. “I just didn’t like the fact that it was two times [he believed Nolin threw at him]. You can’t do two. You got one chance, you’ve got to hit me, and I’m totally fine, and I would have reacted the same way on the second pitch if he hit me on the first, I would have gone to first base, no big deal.
“I understand the situation, there’s no hard feelings from me, I get it, but I just want to let Juan know and let Davey know I totally understand the situation and let’s just move on.”
Soto responded most appropriately in the top of the seventh inning after reliever Richard Rodriguez left a 1-0 fastball over over the middle of the plate.
With Lane Thomas on first, Soto belted the ball more than 460 feet into the right field stands to put the Nationals ahead to stay.
“It feels really good, you know, it was impressive how far it land, but it feels really well.” said Soto. “Just get the lead and try to come back in a game like that.”
Rounding the bases, Soto blew a kiss in the general direction of the Braves’ bullpen.
“Just showing love to my fans in the stands where they are over the bullpen,” Soto said.
“He’s a really good hitter,” said Martinez. “He got a ball out over the plate today and smoked it, but he just wants to play the game. Didn’t really say much last night about anything, he was just ready to play today.”
Finally, it was Freeman at the plate, with a chance to tie the game, flying out to Yadiel Hernanzez in left to end the game.
“They both respect one another for what they do on the field and off the field,” said Martinez. “There’s no ill feeling about anything.”