SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Kyle Freeland’s comfort zone is apparent.
Two starts away from making what most likely will be the first Opening Day start of his brief big-league career, he was on the mound against the Reds on Monday afternoon at Salt River Fields experimenting with a two-seam fastball designed to go down and away to right-handed hitters and induce them into hitting ground balls.
Get the picture?
After his eye-opening second season when he was the bell cow for a rotation that led the National League in innings pitched, the Denver native knows he’s in the season-opening rotation and he has the luxury to look for ways to get even better than the eye-opening sophomore season in which he finished fourth in NL Cy Young Award voting.
“I feel it is key to not be comfortable and content but continuing to want to learn,” he said. “I want to go into the season not be afraid of the cutter of a pitch and throw it and get it whacked. I want it to be another weapon.”
Rockies manager Bud Black has been careful not to announce an Opening Day starter, but all signs point to the Denver native getting the call. Freeland is expected to make his final start of the spring on Friday against either the Padres at Salt River Fields or against the Giants at Scottsdale Stadium. That would have Freeland with five days rest before the season opener at Miami against the Marlins on March 28.
“I have not been told” if he will get that start, but Freeland admitted, “I want the ball. I want to be in the big situation.”
He has earned the confidence from the rest of the Rockies after last year. His 2.40 ERA at Coors Field was the lowest ever for a pitcher who made more than three starts in a season, and his overall ERA of 2.85 also was a record. His 17 wins equaled the second most in franchise history.
Not Freeland. For Freeland that’s a starting point.
“It was a really good building block for me,” he said. “I am confident coming off that season, but I can’t look back. I want to look ahead, at the next challenge.”
He made a critical start in the Rockies wild-card game, taking the mound in Wrigley Field and pitching 6 2/3 shutout innings in a game the Rockies eventually won, 2-1 in 13 innings. That, however, was the end of his season. The Rockies were swept by the Brewers in Game 3 of the NL Division Series. Freeland would have started a Game 4 – if necessary.
“We were a success in that game, but when you reflect on the situation, we were one and done,” he said.
It has served as a motivation for a youthful Rockies team – particularly a rotation in which none of the Big 5 are even 30.
“We had 11 more games to win,” he said in reference to the best-of-five Division Series, and best-of-seven LCS and World Series. “It’s difficult out there until you get the World Series trophy.”
Freeland is a part of the reason the Rockies are optimistic about that opportunity. And he is quick to point to a healthy Chad Bettis, the veteran of the rotation, and a pitcher who Freeland admits he is similar to, even though Bettis is right-handed.
“We have to think along with the hitter,” he said. “We have to think about the situation, and what we are going to do. The mind is always working.”
A year ago, Bettis got off to an impressive start, but he was hampered after the first five weeks by a recurring blister. Bettis, however, was still a factor for the rest of the starting pitchers.
“He was always looking at videos for each of us, bouncing ideas off us,” said Freeland. “You knew he was going to give you an honest opinion.”
While the failure after the wild-card is not forgotten, Freeland does feel his experience in the wild-card game is another chapter in his learning process.
“I definitely feel more comfortable,” he said. “I have been in the big game, the high-pressure game with something on the line. If I get the opportunity to pitch on Opening Day, it will add another.”
He, however, does admit, it will be hard for any single moment to be bigger for him than two years ago when he made his major-league debut in the Rockies home opener. The local kid made good, allowing one run in six innings of a 2-1 victory against the Dodgers.
“That’s the pinnacle, there,” he said.
It, however, is not the ultimate. That remains to be attained. That will come when the Rockies win the final game played in the baseball season – a World Series clinching victory.