By moving third baseman David Freese into the cleanup spot for Thursday night’s Game 4 of the NLCS, St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa has highlighted one of the new realities for his team: Freese has become as indispensible a part of the Cardinals’ lineup as anyone not named Albert Pujols.


(SARAH CONARD/REUTERS)

“He’s our best guy against a left-handed pitcher,” La Russa said, “which is what we’re facing — so he’s hitting fourth.”

Freese’s breakout this month has included a .367/.387/.800 batting line through the Cardinals’ first eight games of the postseason, including two homers, two doubles and six RBI in Games 1, 2 and 3 of the NLCS.

Freese, 28, is a late-bloomer who didn’t break into the majors until the age of 26, and still hasn’t played more than 97 games in a season, thanks to major injuries in both 2010 and 2011. One reason for his late arrival is the fact he walked away from baseball for a time after high school, as described in this excellent piece by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.The Cardinals acquired him in a December 2007 trade from San Diego for veteran outfielder Jim Edmonds (who, coincidentally, is throwing out Thursday night’s ceremonial first pitch).

When the Cardinals’ lineup is going well, with Berkman and Holliday (in whichever order) filling the No. 4 and No. 5 spots in the lineup behind Pujols, and with Freese at No. 6, it gives the Cardinals an extremely deep, AL-style lineup.

Even now, with Berkman struggling and Holliday slowed by a wrist injury, having Freese available to slide seamlessly into the cleanup spot is a huge luxury for the Cardinals. And having Freese there may force the Brewers to think twice about pitching around Pujols.

“I can’t keep walking Albert,” Brewers Manager Ron Roenicke conceded Thursday. “They have too good hitters behind him.”