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CHICAGO – The Chicago Cubs’ starter for the National League Wild Card game, 34-year-old southpaw Jon Lester, came into the contest with 148 innings of postseason work and a remarkable 2.55 ERA over 25 games. He is a three-time World Series champion, including pitching the final game of a Boston Red Sox sweep over the Rockies in 2007.
The bottom of the first was Kyle Freeland’s first inning of postseason baseball.
And somehow he managed to outduel a borderline legend.
As he almost always seems to, Freeland gave up some hits but limited them all to singles in what turned out to be the most dominating pitching performance in Colorado Rockies’ postseason history.
In the first, Ben Zobrist singled back up the middle on a low fastball. But he wouldn’t get anywhere. Freeland came back to strike out Kris Bryant on a high fastball and get Anthony Rizzo to fly out to straightaway right. After getting a close play on a pickoff attempt overturned at first, Freeland just struck out Javier Baez with a filthy changeup end the inning.
For those counting, those were three all-world players that the Rockies’ second-year lefty mowed down in his first taste of playoff baseball.
He did the dance again in the second after Albert Almora Jr., who had just robbed David Dahl of extra bases in the previous half inning with a jumping catch against the wall, hit another leadoff single up the middle.
Freeland got a ground ball to first that Ian Desmond fielded quickly and fired to second but the lefty fell off toward third base and was unable to get to first in time to complete a double play. He got some help in the next at-bat when Blackmon ran down a Wilson Contreras line drive in center, looking like a younger version of himself.
He finished off the inning with a gorgeous strikeout of David Bote, punctuated by a fastball dotted on the high, inside corner that the righty swung through.
After that, Freeland settled into a groove, retiring the side in order in the third, fourth, and fifth innings, getting another big strikeout of Bote to end the fifth, walking off the mound with swagger, confidence, and purpose.
Almora threw out yet another single to center field with one out in the seventh and Daniel Murphy stayed back on a high fastball and hammered it the other way but Trevor Story took to the air and made a spectacular diving catch on what turned out to be Freeland’s last play of the game.
Kyle Freeland tossed 6.2 innings giving up just four hits and walking one while striking out six Cubs hitters, often living in dangerous locations up and in but doing so with extreme conviction.
Coming into Tuesday’s NL Wild Card Game, the Rockies had played in 21 postseason games in their twenty-five seasons.
Freeland did not allow a runner to reach second base until the sixth and, even then, it was not his fault.
Pinch-hitter Ian Happ walked on eight pitches after getting behind 0-2. When a Kris Bryant fly ball sailed into right field, it appeared destined for the glove of David Dahl. The speedy outfielder who is generally a solid defender misplayed the ball, allowing the second out of the inning to fall in for a single.
Freeland responded by getting star first baseman Anthony Rizzo to hit into an inning-ending double play on one pitch.
And all of this happened on his first time pitching on short rest. All he had done four games prior was clinch the Rockies chance to play in this game by gutting through his worst start by hits given up (11) to only allow a pair of runs.
Freeland has come to embody everything this version of the Colorado Rockies is about. Multiple players (all older than him) have come on the BSN Rockies Podcast and told us that the entire team learns from how he goes about his business and attacks the game of baseball every day.
His competitive spirit was on full display to a national audience on Tuesday night and they finally got the chance to see someone who is far more than a perfect fairytale hometown story.
After pitching the best season in Rockies history, to took Freeland exactly one game to pitch the best postseason game in franchise history.
Still at just 25 years old, and with no disrespect meant to Larry Walker or Todd Helton (or even Carlos Gonzalez or Nolan Arenado) nobody has ever had the Colorado Rockies more deeply embedded into their soul.
OTHER NOTABLE STARTS
The Rockies first entry into the postseason occurred in 1995 as the NL’s first Wild Card due in large part to the Blake Street Bombers and an offense that led the NL in runs scored. Dante Bichette, Larry Walker, Vinny Castilla and Andres Galarraga all mashed thirty or more home runs in Coors Field’s first season.
The Rockies faced eventual World Champion Atlanta Braves in the NL Division Series.
Kevin Ritz started Game One against future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. The 30-year-old threw 5.2 innings and surrendered only two runs at home, leaving the game with a 3-2 lead in the sixth before Steve Reed blew the lead with a runner aboard.
Jeff Francis went 6.2 innings in 2007 during Game One of the National League Championship Series when he beat Diamondbacks starter Brandon Webb. Francis also beat the Philllies in the NLDS with a 6.2 inning, two-run victory start.
Ubaldo Jimenez, the pitcher often linked with Freeland throughout much of this season, went seven innings that same 2007 postseason during Game Four of the World Series against Boston’s Lester in the lefty’s first postseason start. Perfect irony.