It wasn’t just that he hit a home run off Brett Myers his first time up in 2009, though it was, Jeff Francouer concedes, really nice. Better still was what happened three days later, when he faced Joe Blanton with the bases loaded, and we know too well what befell Francoeur with the bases loaded a year ago.
“I struggled in that situation last year,” Francoeur said Friday, speaking before the Braves’ home opener. And yes, going 6-for-33 in the maximum run-producing opportunity would constitute a flop in any man’s league. But that, as we’re learning daily, was then. This is now. Now is better.
“I got the count to 2-0,” said Francoeur, the famously free swinger. “And I got a fastball and didn’t try to do too much with it. I just took it back up the middle.”
Two runs scored on the professionally struck single, prompting Francoeur to say: “At the end of the day, I felt better about the bases-loaded single than the home run.”
Yes, our little Frenchy is growing up. We loved him when he arrived in July 2005 because he played baseball with a footballer’s ferocity, but over time we came to love him less because that approach was getting in the way. And finally Francoeur, who became one of the greatest two-sports stars in this state’s history by being gung-ho about everything, came to realize that being gung-ho doesn’t work in the sport he has chosen as his vocation.
“I’ve tried to get out of that football mentality,” he said. “I’m a little better about that now. I’m having fun. I’m relaxed. I’m not as tense, not as amped up. I’m really trying to control my emotions.”
More than a few folks (and you know who you were) were ready to give up on Francoeur last summer. The guess here is that, come September, every Braves fan will be glad Francoeur’s employer stuck with him. Having learned how to succeed the first 24 years of his life, he spent his 25th year learning to fail, which is never easy but ultimately necessary for every athlete.
There were times in 2008 when Francoeur dreaded coming to work. He reported to Turner Field on Friday feeling none of that. “I’m back to being myself,” he said. And then: “But I’m a different player, too.”
And not just emotionally. Technically, too. The swing he brought home from Texas after working over the winter with Rudy Jaramillo, the Rangers’ hitting coach, gets better by the day. The new Francoeur Method calls for a slightly open setup, a shorter stride and less hand movement. “From the very first day of camp, my swing hasn’t changed a bit,” he said. “That’s something I’m proud of.
There are going to be rough moments. Francoeur knows that. He struck out on a Julian Tavarez slider to end the fifth inning with two men aboard. But later Friday — actually, it was Saturday by then — Francoeur slapped a Saul Rivera delivery up the middle to drive home the go-ahead run in this rain-delayed game. (The Braves would win in the 10th on Kelly Johnson’s single.)
How hard, Francoeur was asked, would it be to revert to his old flailing approach? “I’d have to relearn it,” he said. “This has made a huge difference for me.”
The 2009 Braves need Francoeur to be a difference-maker, and he’s capable. He didn’t become less a talent because he had a lousy year. In the grand scheme, that lousy year will make him a better ballplayer. Just watch.