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Former Duke baseball star Nate Freiman making it in the majors

Former Blue Devil Nate Freiman is enjoying success in his rookie season with the Oakland Athletics.
Former Blue Devil Nate Freiman is enjoying success in his rookie season with the Oakland Athletics.

OAKLAND, Calif.—At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, Nate Freiman has the impressive size that screams “basketball player,” which wouldn’t be a bad guess for a successful Duke athlete. But Freiman spent his four years in Durham slamming balls over fences instead of through hoops, and his baseball prowess has landed the former Blue Devil first baseman an important role with the upstart Oakland Athletics.

"Playing in the bigs is a lifelong dream. Every day is the best day," Freiman said. "The team is having a lot of success, and I'm looking forward to doing what I can to help continue that."

At the All-Star Break of his rookie season, Freiman has posted a .262 batting average with two home runs and 17 RBIs in 49 games. Freiman's A's went into the All-Star break with a record of 56-39, leading the Texas Rangers in the American League West by two games.

A right-handed hitter, he spent the first half of the A’s 2013 campaign platooning with left-handed hitting Brandon Moss. Freiman gets the starting nod when the A’s face left-handed starting pitchers, and frequently appears as one of manager Bob Melvin’s first choices off the bench to pinch-hit.

The reasons for the platoon are clear—Freiman is batting .311 against lefties this season but just .125 against righties. Whenever he’s in the lineup, though, his contributions do not go unnoticed.

“He’s doing everything right that a rookie should do, on and off the field,” said Coco Crisp, the A’s veteran outfielder.

After a slow start, Freiman took off in May, hitting .351 with a homer and nine RBIs in 14 games. For his efforts he was named the American League Rookie of the Month, no small accomplishment for a player whose journey to the big leagues has been largely accelerated after skipping Class AAA entirely.

“Freiman’s done great. He’s come in and played well for us this year,” A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson said. “It’s kind of remarkable, coming from Class AA to the big leagues and having some early success. “

After a stellar junior season in which he batted a scorching .381 for the Blue Devils, Freiman was drafted in the 28th round of the MLB draft by the Texas Rangers  in 2008. When it became clear that Texas was not the fit he was looking for, Freiman chose to return to Durham for his senior season.

In his final year wearing a Blue Devil jersey, Freiman posted 20 home runs, 62 RBIs and a .352 batting average, leading the team in all three categories for the third consecutive season. He was named a first-team Academic All-American, became the school’s career home run leader, and paced Duke to a .500 finish in ACC play. 

Freiman’s draft stock rose, and he was selected by the San Diego Padres in the eighth round of the 2009 draft. After signing with the Padres, he was sent to short-season A ball in Eugene, Ore., where he impressed with a .294 average and hit 11 home runs.

Freiman continued his ascent through the Padres farm system between 2010 and 2012,  progressing from full-season A to advanced A ball, before arriving at AA San Antonio, where he clubbed 24 homers and drove in 105 runs. Last September, he was a part of Team Israel’s attempt to qualify for the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

The Houston Astros took notice of Freiman’s numbers, and selected him in December’s Rule 5 Draft. Houston extended an invitation to report to spring training in February, and Freiman accepted. The first baseman was placed on waivers near the end of camp, but another change of scenery was quick to follow, thanks to another American League West squad.

Oakland scooped up Freiman with four days left in spring training, and kept him on the team when the A’s broke camp. He’s been with the club ever since. As a Rule 5 selection, Freiman must remain on the A’s 25-man major league roster for the entirety of the 2013 season, or will be returned to the Padres.

Freiman is breathing rarefied air when it comes to Duke players who have made it to the big leagues in the modern era. Quinton McCracken had a long career with multiple organizations, as has oft-injured starting pitcher Chris Capuano.  Relief pitcher Greg Burke has been up and down with the New York Mets this season.

The other Blue Devil on a big league roster is Freiman’s A’s teammate, Dan Otero. Otero played his first three collegiate seasons at Duke before transferring to the University of South Florida for his senior season. A right-handed reliever, Otero earned his first major league win July 2 against the Chicago Cubs.

The All-Star break comes at a welcome time for Freiman, who has hit a rough patch of late, notching just five hits in 24 at-bats in his last 10 games. Part of that struggle could come from a lack of rhythm—the A’s ended the first half of the season facing a bevy of right-handed pitchers, meaning Melvin opted to start the left-handed hitting Moss at first base. Still, Freiman’s tireless preparation for a late-inning pinch-hit opportunity is not lost on his veteran teammates.

 “It’s tough to come in in late games and pinch-hit or even just platoon and start games on an irregular basis,” Crisp said. “He’s done a great job of working hard and being ready whenever he’s been called upon.”

Freiman was ready June 13, when he delivered a walk-off single in the 18th inning against future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera and the New York Yankees.

After entering the game in the 16th inning following an injury to Donaldson, Freiman stepped in against the closer for his second at-bat of the game and wasted little time before lining a 1-0 pitch into left field.

“[Rivera] throws hard, he throws strikes and his ball moves a lot. So I didn’t want to let him get ahead of me,” Freiman said. “The first pitch over the zone, I was going to swing at. I didn’t want to stand there as a strike goes by.”

Freiman embraced the A’s traditional celebratory whipped-cream pie to the face during the A’s post-game interview, showing a sense of humor that Crisp said has helped the rookie adjust well to life in a major league clubhouse.

“If you’re covered in Gatorade and whipped cream at the end of the game, you probably did something good,” Freiman said.

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