DENVER -- While striking out seven over five scoreless innings, Kyle Freeland turned in a Monday afternoon worthy of the hope that comes with Opening Day -- even if it was Opening Day 2.0, complete with pomp, Old Glory across the Coors Field outfield and a flyover by fighter planes.
Hope briefly fled as Freeland limped off the field after sustaining an injury in his right hamstring while running the bases in the bottom of the fifth inning, but not to fear. The injury was announced as a cramp, so the Rockies could breathe a sigh of relief while celebrating their 2-0 victory over the Pirates in the opener of a three-game series.
Yonathan Daza’s RBI triple and Elias Díaz’s third homer of the season provided offensive support. A bullpen that struggled through the Rockies’ last road trip brought home Colorado’s second shutout of the season, with Tyler Kinley, Jhoulys Chacín, and Carlos Estévez setting up Daniel Bard’s 11th save. But Freeland’s optimism that he won’t miss a start kept the mood bright.
“It was a bit of bad luck rounding second -- I felt it a little bit,” said Freeland, who pulled up while going from first to third on Daza’s fifth-inning double. “But it happens. Thankfully, it wasn’t horrible.”
Sure, it was the 79th game of a season that has been joyful at home (27-16), yet woeful on the road (6-31). But fingers crossed that Freeland will be OK for his next start, his performance was vibrant with hope, renewal and all those warm emotions the baseball poets associate with Opening Day when they rhapsodize.
After missing the early portion of the season with a left shoulder strain, Freeland struggled to a 9.58 ERA through his first five starts. But Freeland held the Mariners to one run on five hits, striking out seven in six innings of a no-decision in the Rockies’ 2-1 loss Tuesday. On Monday, he held the Pirates to three hits, made a couple standout fielding plays in the fifth inning, and reached on a bunt hit and an error on a bunt.
Assuming the injury heals in time for his next start, Freeland seems to be on one of those rolls that he seeks.
“It’s definitely a breath of fresh air to pitch the way that I want to pitch, execute the things that I want to execute, be on the same page with the catcher behind the plate that day,” Freeland said. “It’s nice to get that breathing room to get that feeling back.
“This is very fun for me, as opposed to grinding through things put there, giving up weak hits, giving up home runs, struggling for your team. Nobody wants that.”
Freeland never blamed rust for his struggles in his early starts. But after missing most of Spring Training, rehabbing and having two Minor League rehab starts, Freeland could not find consistent location with any of his pitches.
But the inconsistency began to melt away in Seattle, when his breaking pitches returned. On Monday, Freeland’s fastballs on either side of the plate were sharper.
“It sort of mirrored what he did in Seattle,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “He kept the ball down well. He threw some good fastballs. I thought his secondary stuff was pretty solid today -- his slider and curveball. He threw some changeups, too, so it was a mix of four pitches.”
As for his changeup, Freeland’s critique was, “It’s getting there -- it’s just a couple tweaks from getting back to where I want it to be.”
A naturally intense competitor, Freeland’s challenge is to set aside the emotion of the moment -- something he did successfully as he maintained consistent pitch location. So while a crowd of 32,092 basked in 73-degree temperature and appreciated celebrating an opener the way it could not under strict fan limits in April, Freeland stayed detail-oriented.
“I try not to hype anything up because of circumstances,” Freeland said. “Whether it's Opening Day, Opening Day 2.0, the start of a 60-game season [like 2020], a playoff game [like 6 2/3 scoreless at Wrigley Field in the Rockies’ eventual 2018 National League Wild Card Game victory]. Whatever it is, I try to keep my mentality exactly the same.”