Kyle Freeland was laid out face down on the infield grass at Coors Field Tuesday, trying to get on his feet after making a play on Cubs batter Andrew Romine and only making it to all fours as he felt pain shooting through his body. The last time he felt that bad was in Spring Training, and he missed nearly two full months to open the season as a result.
“It hit my foot and ricocheted off,” Freeland told the Daily Planet after the game, describing the line drive he unintentionally stopped soccer-style with his left foot. “I tried to make the play, and pretty much immediately after that is when the pain struck in my foot. It was pretty drastic at the time.”
Manager Bud Black and the team medical staff came out to the mound intent on pulling Freeland from the game, but he channeled his adrenaline and convinced them he was good to go, coaxing an inning-ending double play out of the next batter. He tried to go out again in the sixth, but the pain was building, and this time Black’s cautious instincts prevailed over Freeland’s never-say-die mentality.
“I'm the kind of person, I’m kind of plugged in,” Freeland explained. “I'm gonna go until someone tells me you're not going anywhere.”
Freeland doesn’t need to explain his make-up to Rockies fans. There were people in the stands who have seen it for 28 years, from his earliest days as a Colorado kid to his dominance at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver and through his first four-plus big-league seasons, all with his hometown Rockies.
“It still holds a very special place in my heart to be a part of this organization, being from the city,” Freeland told the Daily Planet in an exclusive interview before the series finale with the Cubs Thursday, offering assurance that his foot was fine and he’d make his next start Sunday. “I take pride in it every single day.”
It’s refreshing to see a two-time playoff pitcher in his first two years in the Majors and a Cy Young contender in his sophomore season still approaching his prime and committed as ever to keeping his game in Colorado.
“I would definitely like to be a Rockie for a long time,” Freeland said. “I know a lot of guys don't have the opportunity to play long-term for the city that they grew up in and the team that they grew up watching.”
The Centennial State is one shy of 100 native-born players making it to the big leagues for any amount of time. Two of them — Goose Gossage (Colorado Springs) and Roy Halladay (Denver) — have made the Hall of Fame.
Before Freeland, only four other Colorado-born players were ever on the Rockies big league roster: Denver’s Mark Knudson finished his career with four games in purple pinstripes in the club’s inaugural season of 1993, Scott Elarton (Lamar) and Nate Field (Denver) both made stops with the Rox, and Durango’s John Burke played his entire career for the Rockies, pitching in 28 games from 1996-97. Ironically, they’re all pitchers.
“Knowing the factors of altitude and how they affect your body for pitchers, how they affect your pitches and everything like that, it's an advantage,” Freeland said of spending his youth pitching a mile above sea level. “Little things you pick up over the over the years help — how to get my body right coming back to altitude, how I need to tweak pitches a little bit coming back to altitude and pitching here.”
This year Freeland, a lifelong Denver resident, has been joined by Westminster’s Lucas Gilbreath, the 99th Colorado-born player to break into the big leagues, and Rockies fans have reveled in the chance to root for the tandem of old-school locals.
Gilbreath found himself turning down the Rockies when he was first drafted out of high school and holding his breath for three more years before he was drafted again by Colorado as a college junior. He’s been on Cloud 9 since making his debut against the D-backs on May 1, yielding a ninth-inning homer to Josh Rojas on the first pitch of his big-league career.
“I kept telling myself the whole game, ‘If I can remember anything today, I just need to get up there and breathe,’” Gilbreath told the Planet the day after his debut, recalling his effort to slow his heartbeat to normal. The first pitch homer didn’t help as his breathing stopped while watching his first pitch head for the pool beyond Arizona’s centerfield fence.
“Oh, man, it got me out of it for a little bit there. But it happens. That's the game of baseball. There's nowhere to go but up from here.”
Gilbreath’s love of the Rockies goes back about 20 years to his kindergarten days, when his dad pulled him out of school for Opening Day and he sat wide-eyed in the third deck in right field. He was a frequent participant in the Little League parade around the warning track at Coors Field before games, and finally getting the call from Colorado in the 2017 draft was everything he could hope for.
“It was a dream come true for sure,” Gilbreath said. “Obviously, in the draft process, you don't have much control, so I would have taken an opportunity wherever I got it, but I was very fortunate. It was a blessing to be able to get picked up by them and have that opportunity.”
These days, every Rockies home game is like a party for Gilbreath’s friends and family, and it’s not unusual for him to go into the stands after the game and chat with scores of familiar faces eagerly cheering him on, whether he gets in a game or not.
“It's awesome,” he said of the thrill of wearing the purple pinstripes his heroes like Jason Jennings, Jeff Francis and current teammate Jhoulys Chacin have worn. “Growing up, this place seemed so big and scary. As I get out there and I get more comfortable, it's so nice to be out here with my wife and my parents in the stands. Almost every game just feels comfortable. I'm learning to pitch here and learning to love it here.”
The biggest inspiration for both Freeland and Gilbreath was Roy Halladay, the Hall of Famer who went 203-105 with a 3.38 ERA over 16 seasons for the Blue Jays and Phillies. Preceding Halladay in the Hall was Goose Gossage, who went 124-107 with 301 saves over 22 seasons for nine teams, including seven seasons closing games out in the Billy Martin era Yankees.
“You're really seeing the sport grow in the state,” Freeland said of the current crop of Colorado-grown prospects. “You're seeing more and more guys being produced. You want to see more guys get to bigger name colleges, and then get out of college and go into professional baseball.”
Freeland, Jon Gray, German Marquez, Antonio Senzatela and Austin Gombers have joined forces to as the most successful rotation in franchise history. Taking a cue from Gray’s public lobbying to remain a Rockie at the trade deadline, Freeland looks forward to bringing glory to his home state.
“Over the past couple of years, I've learned from Johnny with some of his struggles to just be grateful that we're able to come out here and play baseball every single day and do it at the highest level and do it with a group of guys that you enjoy being around,” Freeland said.
If Freeland is in line to be the Rockies version of Roy Halladay, Gilbreath can aspire to Goose Gossage standards. He switched from a starter to a reliever this season and has embraced the change in role.
“For me, relieving is a good fit,” Gilbreath told the Planet in an interview on the field before Thursday’s win over the Cubs. “Physically and mentally, it's been a little bit of a tough transition at times, but you know there's a lot of good guys around here to learn from to ask questions and kind of learn the process of being a reliever and how to be a reliever at this level.”
With a dearth of dependable arms in the Rockies bullpen this season, Gilbreath has already had opportunities to step up his game, earning a save against the Dodgers on the road and pitching his share of high-stakes innings. Since returning from a Triple A, he’s allowed no earned runs in 11 of his 14 relief appearances for the Rockies, posting a 4.97 ERA from June 5 through Thursday.
Gilbreath shares the ambition of his state-mate Freeland, with both determined to lead the Rockies to glory and show other Colorado kids the benefit of pursuing their wildest sandlot dreams.
“I'd love to stay here,” the rookie said of his hopes for a sustained career pitching for his home team. “I love the Rockies, I love the organization. Ultimately, I want to win games here, I want to win pennants, I want to win championships, and I think everybody here has the same goal.”