Rockies' Kyle Freeland rises to occasion, with embarrassing John Elway moment still fresh

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Even now, as he’s mostly laughing while telling the story of his most embarrassing injury, Kyle Freeland winces just a bit.Freeland, the left-handed ace of the Colorado Rockies, was 7 or 8 years old and a regular at the baseball games of his older brother, Colin. And Colin played on a team with Jack Elway, the son of Denver Broncos Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway. For any little kid growing up in Colorado, just being near John Elway was a really, really big deal.  MORE: Watch 'ChangeUp,' a new live whiparound show on DAZNAfter one of Colin’s games, with all the parents and players still hanging around the field, one of the dads started throwing batting practice to his son. Kyle and some of the other younger brothers, gloves at the ready, scrambled out to shag fly balls. Any excuse to get out on the baseball field and impress the older kids was a welcomed opportunity.  But this didn’t go quite as Freeland planned. “So this kid hits a fly ball and I go to catch it and I just take my eye off the ball for a split second and it glances off my glove and smokes me right under the eye,” Freeland said, grimacing as he stood in front of his spring training locker a couple of weeks ago. “I mean, in front of John Elway, in front of his son. So that was pretty embarrassing. I had this huge welt, with the laces showing right across my cheek.”That welt under his eye healed long ago. The shot to his baseball-playing little-kid pride, though? That still stings a bit, even now. A little more focus and Freeland avoids that embarrassing — and painful — moment in front of the best athlete in Colorado state history. The lesson was learned, though. Was it ever. “The individual challenges that pop up in a game, whether it be one pitch or one at-bat, whatever it may be, just the way that he always rises to the occasion (is impressive), it seems like every time,” veteran Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta told Sporting News this spring. “The more difficult the situation is, the more he has the ability to do more and be successful. Usually when guys try to do more, they go the other way. When he tries to increase his intensity, you get a one-to-one correlation where it actually works. Other people, it’s the other way around.”Freeland finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting last year, after finishing a stellar sophomore season on the mound. The lefty posted a 2.85 ERA (and 3.67 FIP), including a stellar 2.40 ERA in 15 starts in the notoriously hitter-friendly Coors Field. That’s the best single-season home ERA for any Rockies pitcher with at eight games started at Coors.And he was at his best when it mattered most. In 163 plate appearances with runners in scoring position last year, opposing hitters posted just a .546 OPS. Among starters with at least 150 innings, that number ranked eighth in baseball, behind Cy Young winners Blake Snell and Jacob deGrom, plus guys like Max Scherzer, Chris Snell and Aaron Nola. “When I get into situations, I just kind of think, ‘OK, you need to really lock it in right here and do what you need to do to minimize damage, or create no damage at all,” Freeland said. “And I guess you kind of go into an extra focus or hyper-focus. That's not something that I just click and do. Whenever I'm in a situation like that, I just try to bear down as much as possible and really make my pitches.”MORE: SN's Power RankingsFreeland has pitch-by-pitch breathing exercises that help him stay on that even keel, but so do lots of pitchers who struggle in those situations. So what makes Freeland different? “I have no clue. I wish I knew,” Iannetta said with a laugh. “I think we all search for that. Some of us can do it and some of us can’t. He’s one who can, for sure.”In 356 plate appearances with men on base — any base, not just in scoring position — Freeland gave up just one home run last year. The other 16 homers he allowed were all solo shots. That’s how you minimize damage.“When you're in a game, cruising and everything's going smoothly, you’re just out there firing strikes,” Freeland said. “You’re just looking to get ahead of guys and if they hit the ball, so what, you're still grooving. But when you get into situations where something bad can happen, that’s where you got to truly think yourself through your situations.”Freeland only had one testing situation in his first 2019 start, and he passed that with flying colors on Opening Day. Pitching on the road in Miami, Freeland retired the first 11 batters he faced. He gave up a two-out single in the fourth, a two-out walk in the fifth, a solo homer in the sixth. In the seventh, an error and a hit-by-pitch gave the Marlins two runners on with only one out. But Freeland induced a weak grounder from Miguel Rojas for a force out at third base, then got Rosell Herrera to loft a harmless fly ball to right field for the third out. In other words, more of the same. “Everyone here is physically talented,” Iannetta said. “There’s a ton of pitchers who have really great stuff. But it’s the way he competes and the way he handles challenges.”John Elway, you'd imagine, would be proud of the kid with the welt under his eye.