Freel can’t back off dangerous, all-out style of play

SARASOTA, Fla. – Ryan Freel gripped the padded arms of his folding chair and gently lowered himself into a sitting position, giving his achy back an easy descent. Scrapes the consistency of overripe strawberries adorned both forearms.

A day after his foolishly fantastic catch, his body was

feeling it.

Only Freel would throw himself headlong into an outfield wall – OK, so the wall was padded – to make a catch in a meaningless spring training game, leaving him in need of ice, X-rays and something for that headache.

The outfielder’s emergency-room-or-bust style has made him a fan favorite in Cincinnati. He had a career breakthrough this spring, when manager Jerry Narron decided that Freel would take over in center field for Ken Griffey Jr.

That’s where he’ll start the season opener on Monday – unless he runs into something else between now and then.

Don’t rule it out.

“What’s gotten me here is playing the game hard and doing everything I can to win a ballgame,” he said yesterday before going for precautionary X-rays on his ribs that were negative. “To tone it down for the longevity – that’s something I can’t do. I can’t hold back. I just can’t do that. If I’m going to get hurt, I’m going to get hurt.”

On this day, the checklist of hurts is typically long. Sore ribs. Sore right shoulder blade. Sore back.

“Nothing I couldn’t play with,” said Freel, who got the day off anyway.

All the aches and scrapes came from one play that left everyone shaking their heads in wonder. Freel made a diving catch on the warning track during a 6-2 loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday night, flinging himself headfirst into the base of the padded wall. He held onto the ball, but had to leave the game at the end of the inning because of back spasms.

“It shows how crazy he is,” Reds pitcher Kyle Lohse said. “He’s a gamer. He doesn’t take a play off no matter what.”

His manager wishes he would.

Narron has talked to Freel about easing up during spring training so he’s completely healthy – if there is such a thing – for the season opener against the Cubs. He might as well talk to the outfield wall.

“I told him to try to play this game at about 80 percent, so maybe he was,” Narron mused.