ST. LOUIS -- David Freese is not delusional. Those three National League Championship Series homers that helped his hometown Cardinals advance to the Fall Classic? That game-saving triple when the Cards were down to their last strike in Game 6 of the World Series? That 11th-inning home run that sent the Series to a decisive seventh game, earned him MVP honors and ensured he'll never again have to pay for his dinner within the St. Louis city limits? It all qualifies as once-in-a-lifetime stuff.
"Let's be honest," Freese said, "what happened last October is never going to happen again." But while the sheer ecstatic nature of that experience is in the past, Freese -- with a .406 average, three homers, 11 RBIs and a 1.112 OPS through this first 33 plate appearances -- is proving in this early stage of the 2012 season that his career trajectory still points in the right direction: Up. "He's maturing into the kind of player that he is," teammate Lance Berkman said. "You saw it during the postseason last year. He is a big-time player. If he stays healthy, he's going to hit 30, drive in 100 and hit over .300. He's just a great hitter." How great are we talking about here? "If you're looking for your next $200 million contract," Berkman said, "he's got a chance to do it. He's that kind of player." Well, the Puma's getting a little ahead of himself there. Freese is about to turn 29, and he'll be 32 by the time he's eligible for free agency. It would appear unlikely that any $200 million contracts are in his future, and that's the price paid for being a late-bloomer oft-affected by injury. (In fact, Freese has missed the Cardinals' past two games because of finger irritation that appears minor.) But Berkman's point about Freese being a "big-time player" seems a valid one. The guy has shown a knack for knocks in clutch situations, and his October experience -- while impossible to repeat -- did give him a sense of calm and a sense of self. "You've got to take confidence from that," Freese said. "It opens up your mind to know what's possible." Freese entered this season with a special kind of pressure. He was his own tough act to follow, and a big part of the reason some seemed to think this Cardinals offense -- even without Albert Pujols -- could improve upon its 2011 output was his health and his presence. Still, it was -- and, in some measure, still is -- fair to wonder whether Freese's October assault was a flash of greatness on the horizon or just the dreaded flash in the pan. This is, after all, a guy who -- even approaching 30 -- has yet to play a full big league season. His career nearly derailed when a 2009 car accident sent him on the path to three separate surgeries on his ankles and feet. And when he finally seized the Cards' third-base job last year, his season was saddled early by a broken hand and late by a concussion. Really, then, we've yet to see the full Freese. All we know is that he's doing a fine job in the immediate aftermath of his Fall Classic fortitude, even though his career walk (6.9 percent) and strikeout (21.3) rates don't portend to the kind of greatness Berkman foresees for him. For his part, Freese takes comfort in the strength of his lower half. For the first time in a long time, he feels good about the stability of his legs and feet, and that confidence comes across in these early results. "You hit with your legs," he said. "Any guy that can drive the ball will tell you that. You get a good pitch to hit, and your hands will take you to the ball, but you definitely hit with your legs." And with those legs under him, Freese has looked adroit at the plate and agile and aware in the field. "You're seeing a more complete player," manager Mike Matheny said. Can we expect to see this all season? Well, just because Freese walked a wayward path to this point doesn't mean he's due for a dead end. But he still has to mature as a hitter, showing more patience to go with the power. The good news, in that regard, is that Freese shows a willingness to work and to learn and has not had his ego aggrandized one bit by October. He has plenty of veterans surrounding him to keep him humble. "With everybody in this clubhouse that's been around and gone through their ups and downs, it's a disgrace if you're in this locker room and don't have respect for what you can learn from these guys," he said. "They say it's easy to get to the big leagues and tough to stay here. These guys help you stay in the big leagues. They've got their arms open and they're here to help. They were a big reason I was able to do what I did last year." Freese still has trouble wrapping his head around all October entailed. He was the local boy who ascended on the game's most prominent platform, and it's made him one of the focal points of the franchise he grew up rooting for. Case in point: Check into a St. Louis hotel, and there's Freese's face greeting you on the cover of the area visitor's guide. "It's crazy," he said. Whether or not this early outburst continues for the rest of his career, Freese will always be a popular person in these parts. He can't leave the house without somebody stopping him to thank him for what he and his teammates did last fall. "I still don't understand that," Freese said with a laugh. "People thanking a Cardinal player for what he did on the field. That's a wonderful, humbling feeling." And while it's too early to draw any conclusions from what we're seeing at this stage, Freese has managed to keep those good feelings going in 2012.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.