Sal Frelick had always dreamed about playing in the big leagues, and growing up starring on the local fields in Lexington the talented outfielder always wondered what the day might be like if and when it finally came.
Yet even in his wildest dreams, he never imagined things would play out like this.
Frelick’s MLB debut was like something out of a fairy tale. Upon being called up ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers’ July 22 series opener against the Atlanta Braves, Frelick delivered an epic performance to lead his team to a 4-3 win over the NL East powerhouse. Batting sixth and starting in right field, the 23-year-old went 3 for 3 while making two sensational catches at the warning track and driving in two runs, first tying the game in the sixth and then knocking in the go-ahead run in the eighth on a sacrifice fly.
Even four months later, Frelick still can’t quite believe it.
“I had imagined really hoping to get my first hit out of the way and having a good game overall in my debut,” Frelick told the Herald this week. “It completely exceeded expectations, playing well on both sides of the ball.”
That extraordinary debut was among the highlights of what was without a doubt the most emotional season of Frelick’s baseball career, a roller coaster year marked by both incredible highs and painful lows. Whether it was facing off against Shohei Ohtani in the Tokyo Dome, suffering a painful thumb injury a week into the season and eventually helping lead the Brewers to a division title and a playoff appearance, Frelick’s rookie season was one he’ll never forget.
“It was just a blast,” he said.
A fast rise
One of the greatest athletes to come out of Greater Boston this past decade, Frelick was a three-sport superstar at Lexington High in football, hockey and baseball. He earned 12 varsity letters, three Middlesex League MVP awards and was named Mass. Gatorade Football Player of the Year as a senior.
Frelick was offered the chance to play Division 1 football and baseball at nearby Boston College, and he ultimately chose to continue his career on the diamond. Despite some injuries as a freshman and the COVID-19 pandemic cutting his sophomore year short after 15 games, Frelick enjoyed a successful college career, becoming a two-time All-ACC selection and earning ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors as a junior in 2021.
That season he also broke out as a top draft prospect, and after declaring for the 2021 MLB Draft he was snapped up by the Brewers with the No. 15 overall pick. Though somewhat undersized at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, the left-handed batter boasted a tantalizing combination of elite speed and outstanding bat-to-ball skills.
Brewers area scout Ty Blankmeyer believed he’d found a special talent whose gifts belied his smaller stature.
“He acts like he’s the biggest dude on the field,” Blankmeyer told MLB.com after the draft. “He knows his game. He’s very sharp. He’s got a very high aptitude, so he understands what he has to do to be successful. The twitch and the athleticism and the explosiveness make up for — I don’t care how big you are, because this guy, his game is big. He might be ‘small,’ but his game’s not small, it’s big. When you go watch him in the game, he always does something to make you get up out of your seat, like, ‘woah.’ He’s an exciting player.”
Upon his arrival, Frelick immediately rewarded the Brewers’ faith, earning two promotions from rookie ball to High-A in a matter of weeks before jumping two levels again in 2022, reaching Triple-A by the end of his first full season of professional baseball. He then entered 2023 ranked as the No. 33 prospect in the sport by Baseball America, and it was considered just a matter of time before he made his MLB debut.
Before embarking on what was shaping up to be the most important season of his life, Frelick was offered the unique opportunity to play for Team Italy in the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Frelick was eligible thanks to his family’s ties to the country, and he ultimately got approval from the Brewers to participate, reasoning the tournament would be a good experience for him as a player.
“I remember debating whether or not to do it, but for my personal development I don’t think I could prepare myself any better than playing playoff type baseball in a highly competitive atmosphere,” said Frelick, adding he hopes to play in future WBC tournaments every chance he gets. “With spring training sometimes you’re just going through the motions, trying to get yourself ready for the season, get a few at bats here, but I think the World Baseball Classic offers the ultimate competition.”
Though Italy wasn’t considered a favorite going in, the Italians exceeded expectations and advanced to the knockout rounds after finishing second in Pool A, beating the heavily-favored Cuba and Netherlands in the process. Frelick settled in as Team Italy’s leadoff hitter, batting .304 with three doubles and four RBI, and the journey culminated with a trip to Tokyo to face eventual champion Japan in the quarterfinals.
That game, which Italy lost 9-3, wound up doing a 48.7 rating in Japan, which means nearly half of all households in the country were tuned in for the matchup. Factoring in viewership in the United States and around the world, the game was likely watched by north of 60 million people, making it among the most watched baseball games ever played.
“I remember we showed up for batting practice, the game was at 7 and we showed up at like 2, and we walked out and we’re warming up, it’s like five or six hours before the game, and the place is completely sold out,” Frelick said. “They were all there in their seats just ready, it was like the Olympics to them. I was like ‘wow, this is a really big deal for the whole country,’ and for me as a baseball player, to be able to play in that sort of setting was just unbelievable.”
A major setback
As much momentum as Frelick had coming into the year, all of it came to a crashing halt when the outfielder tore a ligament in his thumb sliding into a second base a week into the season.
Adding insult to injury, Frelick got hurt the same day big leaguer outfielder Garrett Mitchell injured his shoulder. Had he remained healthy, Frelick could have potentially been called up to the majors the next night.
Instead, Frelick found himself stuck on the shelf for two months.
“I remember just being so bummed because I really wanted to get that call as early as I could,” he said. “I ended up back in Arizona rehabbing for two months and definitely put a pause on things but I remember coming back being happy to play baseball again.”
Disappointing as the injury was, Frelick made the most of the situation by using the time to get in the best shape possible.
“The season takes a toll on you, playing 162 games, that’s a lot of baseball, but when I was rehabbing, obviously I had surgery and it was a big injury, but it was just my thumb. I was able to lift, get really strong the rest of my body to finish that season really strong,” Frelick said. “Where other people’s bodies were hurting, I came in really fresh halfway through the year. So I had the upper hand there and this was a big opportunity for me to get really strong for the rest of my body and come back and hit the ground running once I do get healthy.”
Soaking it in
Frelick returned to action with Triple-A Nashville on June 14 and made his big league debut in Milwaukee a little over a month later. The rookie provided an immediate spark, posting a 1.2 wins above replacement mark while batting .246 with 29 runs, 24 RBI and seven stolen bases in just 57 games.
Following his call-up, the Brewers finished 38-26 down the stretch, capturing the NL Central title and a spot in the playoffs.
“It was awesome, when we clinched the division, at home too, it was unbelievable. We were spraying champagne, we went on the field, the fans stayed, and we had a big celebration,” Frelick said. “All of the veterans were like ‘I don’t know if you know how lucky you are, it’s so hard to make the playoffs and you just did it in your first year. Soak it in, you just don’t know.’
“There were guys on my team who were six, seven, eight-year veterans who had never made the playoffs before and it was a first for them,” he continued. “I was up for half the year and to be able to partake in that? It was unbelievable. Then to even get a taste of playoff baseball in my first year will go a long way in being prepared for the following seasons.”
Frelick credited Milwaukee’s veterans for showing him the ropes, particularly Christian Yelich, the 2018 NL MVP who Frelick grew up watching as a teenager. He also praised former Brewers manager Craig Counsell, and though he acknowledged he was as surprised as anyone to see him land with the Chicago Cubs, he’s also happy for him and harbors no ill feelings.
“We all knew he was on the block, we weren’t sure what he was going to do. I definitely think I was surprised to see maybe where he ended up, but at the same time he’s such a great manager and I’m always in his corner,” Frelick said. “I loved to see him earn a really nice contract, what I think he deserves, but at the same time it’s going to be new next year when you go in, it’s going to be a new staff and a new manager. It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out.”
Circle the date
Looking ahead, Frelick already has the weekend of May 24-26 marked down on his calendar. That’s when the Brewers are scheduled to visit Fenway Park, which promises to be a special homecoming for Frelick and his entire family.
“Oh, yeah. I already have the schedule marked on the calendar and my family is super excited,” Frelick said. “Boston is home to me, it’ll always be home to me, I have so many friends and important people in my life who impacted my career who are from this area, to hopefully have them be able to come out and watch me play is going to be super special.”
Frelick’s return will be a full circle moment, and also one of the last major firsts to get out of the way as he settles into what should hopefully be a long big league career.
Now, after years of working towards reaching the show, Frelick has new dreams to chase and goals to achieve, first among them building upon last fall’s quick playoff exit.
“I had a great first year, I was able to get my feet wet, get comfortable, play in the playoffs, but just got a taste of the playoffs and I think next year, once you get a taste you just crave it,” Frelick said. “I’d really love to go on a great playoff run, bring the city of Milwaukee a World Series, getting to the World Series is always going to be the No. 1 goal, but to watch these teams go on runs and have these magical runs in the postseason, you just hope to be on that team for however long I play in my career, that’s always going to be the goal.”