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Kyle Freeland “earns” job to be Rockies’ opening-day starter for third time

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Kyle Freeland takes nothing for granted.

So it’s little wonder that the Rockies’ veteran left-hander was “honored” to be named the opening-day starter for the third time in his career. But when Freeland takes the mound against the defending National League champion Arizona Diamondback on March 28 at Chase Field, something extra will raise goosebumps.

“Everything in this game is earned, not given,” Freeland said Tuesday. “You always need to make sure you are keeping that mentality.”

The Colorado native and Thomas Jefferson High School graduate lived by that creed this offseason. He gave himself a harsh self-critique, worked hard to rebuild shoulder strength and developed a better changeup. It’s paid off during spring training. Through his four Cactus League starts, Freeland has a 3.21 ERA and 14 strikeouts vs. just one walk. His fastball has been consistently humming at 92 mph and has reached 94 mph.

“His stuff looks as good as it has ever looked,” manager Bud Black said.

That’s saying something, considering Freeland went 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA in 2018 when he finished fourth in voting for the National League Cy Young Award.

Freeland endured a rough 2023 season. His fastball velocity dropped to as low as 88 mph, his ERA was 5.03, and, plagued by a lack of run support, his 14 losses were a career-high. Opponents hit .300 against him and he served up 29 home runs — both career-worst marks.

He served two stints on the injured list, first for a right shoulder subluxation suffered while diving for a groundball in July and then in mid-September when he strained his right oblique.

During the offseason, Freeland committed to self-improvement.

“Being able to put in the work this offseason — I feel great with my body and my arm — has been great,” he said. “So it definitely feels like I’ve earned this position to be the opening-day starter. I’m grateful that Buddy believes in me to be that guy.”

Freeland’s first opening-day start was at Miami in 2019. He was tremendous that day, allowing one run on two hits over seven innings in Colorado’s 6-3 victory. His second opening-day start, in 2022 against the Dodgers at Coors Field, didn’t go well. He was charged with five runs on five hits in 3 2/3 innings in Colorado’s 5-3 loss.

Freeland is used to the big stage. He made his major league debut in the Rockies’ home opener against the Dodgers in 2017, giving up one run on four hits with two walks and six strikeouts over six innings in the Rockies’ 2-1 victory.

“We feel good about this and I’m excited for Kyle,” Black said. “He’s been everything I could ask for as a Rockie, as far as his commitment and investment in the organization, and his pride, his place among his teammates. It’s an honor for Kyle; it truly is. It’s a feather in the cap to be recognized as your team’s opening-day starter.”

The Rockies are coming off a 103-loss season, the worst in franchise history, but Black feels good about giving Freeland the ball for a fresh start in 2024.

“Last year was tough for all of us, in a lot of different ways,” Black said. “But Kyle has never wavered from taking the ball and having the confidence to win a game for us. We always feel good when he takes the mound because we know the (preparation) is there, the commitment is there and his devotion to the team is there. Those are the guys you want.”

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