And Kyle Freeland won it.
“Got to start your postseason experience somewhere,” the Colorado Rockies pitcher said after Tuesday night’s 2-1, 13-inning win, because he had never pitched in a playoff game before facing Jon Lester and the Chicago Cubs, and so he had definitely never dominated one, either.
“Right, isn’t that great?” Rockies Manager Bud Black deadpanned earlier that afternoon, well before Freeland took the mound, when reminded that his starter, his ace, had zero postseason experience going into the biggest game of the year.
That did not matter. Or maybe it helped. Whatever it was, whatever got into Freeland against the Cubs with the season on the line, the Rockies seem to have the kind of arm that propels a team in October. The 25-year-old left-hander threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings on just three days' rest — he had never started on fewer than four days' rest following another start in his young career — and struck out six hitters while walking just one. He set down 12 consecutive Cubs from the second to the fifth, mixed a low-to-mid 90s fastball with a darting slider to do so, and helped the Rockies to a victory in the longest win-or-go-home playoff game in baseball history. That pushed them into a National League Division Series matchup with the Milwaukee Brewers, which starts Thursday at 5:07 p.m. at Miller Park. Freeland will likely pitch in Game 3 at Coors Field in Denver on Sunday.
By the end of Tuesday night, after all the substitutions and pitching changes and theatrics at the plate and in the field, it was easy to forget that Freeland defused Baez and Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, and so on, for more than two-thirds of the regularly scheduled game. But it was not lost on the Cubs as they ambled around a somber clubhouse, hugging each other with reddened eyes, picking at equipment that would soon have to be packed up for the winter. Lester — who was only slightly less excellent in allowing one run in six innings Tuesday — said Freeland “threw his ass off.” Cubs second baseman Daniel Murphy praised him while answering three different questions framed around the Cubs' offensive struggles. Rizzo admitted that he did not know much about Freeland going into the game, but now he certainly did.
The rest of the baseball world is catching up, too.
“He loves to play. So I knew going in that he was not going to scare off and back down from this challenge and pitching on short rest was not going to bother him in this game,” Black said after the win. “There was a limit, and I know that the adrenaline in these games catches up with you. From the time that he woke up this morning he was excited, and you could tell that he was excited the first inning based on how he was throwing.”
That excitement was not only for the moment, a do-or-die start inside the sport’s most hallowed park, but also because of where Freeland is from. He grew up in Denver, a die-hard Rockies fan, glued to his television as Matt Holliday led an upstart team to the World Series in 2007. Freeland was 14 then, still dreaming of wearing those purple-and-black uniforms, and is now starting another run alongside a 38-year-old Holliday and a stacked Rockies lineup.
That 2007 team also relied on a thumping offense, and its ace was a 26-year-old lefty named Jeff Francis. Francis finished the regular season with 17 wins, just like Freeland did this year, but had a 4.22 ERA in 34 starts. That is characteristic of even the Rockies' steadiest pitchers, as the dimensions of Coors Field create a massive outfield for hitters to chip doubles and triples into. Only one starter on this year’s team had an ERA below 3.77. It was Freeland. His ERA, remarkably, settled at 2.85 on the third-to-last-day of the season.
“I don’t think the lights will be too big for him,” Arenado, the Rockies' star third baseman, said before Tuesday’s game. “He wants the ball, and for me, as a position player, playing behind a pitcher, that’s all you want. You want the pitcher to want that ball, and he wants it.”
That is an important characteristic, especially now, as the stakes rise and bullpens are taxed and the compact playoff schedule demands flexibility from starting pitchers. That is not to suggest Freeland is Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander or Madison Bumgarner, star starters who lifted their teams with gutsy efforts, either in relief or on short rest, in recent postseasons. But he is the closest the Rockies have to one of those elastic, invaluable arms.
That counts for a lot this time of year.