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Denver native Freeland feels at home at top of Rox rotation

PAT GRAHAM (AP Sports Writer)
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Freeland against Urena in Rockies-Marlins opener

Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Kyle Freeland throws against the Cincinnati Reds in the first inning of a spring training baseball game Monday, March 18, 2019, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

DENVER (AP) -- Denver native Kyle Freeland wears the affection for his city on his right arm: Tattoos of the area code (303), the elevation (5,280) and a silhouette of the Rocky Mountains.

With his left, there's the ability to carry the Colorado Rockies to even greater heights.

Since it's the team he grew up rooting for, Freeland takes immense satisfaction in the Rockies' recent run of success. The homegrown hurler hopes to deliver something else this season along the way to what would be a third straight postseason appearance: Colorado's first NL West title. The left-hander will try to begin the season on the right foot as the opening day starter Thursday in Miami.

''I take a ton of pride of being a part of this team, that is winning and that is trending up,'' Freeland said . ''I take pride in being from Colorado, being a product of the school system in Denver and everything that my life has been leading up to these past couple of years. It's just pure pride. I love the state, love the city, and I can't imagine growing up anywhere else.''

Freeland is coming off a strong season in which he finished 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA. He wound up fourth in the NL Cy Young voting in part because of a 2.40 ERA at Coors Field, which was the lowest home mark in team history.

So much for being rattled by the hitter friendly park. Then again, he went to high school in the area and became accustomed to pitching at altitude.

''It's kind of nice to shove it back in some people's faces who doubt the pitching at Coors Field or pitching for the Rockies,'' Freeland said. ''We're starting to show people it doesn't matter if you're high altitude or sea level, if you can pitch you can pitch.''

As a kid, Freeland watched this team go through numerous valleys with an occasional peak (like 2007, when the Rockies made their only World Series appearance). That's why last season was so special, with Colorado in the NL West chase all the way to the end, before the team lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a tiebreaking game.

Freeland got the call to start the postseason. He tossed 6 2/3 masterful innings on short rest in a 2-1, 13-inning win over the Chicago Cubs in the NL wild-card game. That was his final start of the season as the Rockies were swept by the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Division Series. German Marquez, another bright spot in the rotation, made Colorado's lone start at home.

The season was another step in the right direction for the Rockies, who made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history.

''You start getting addicted to that feeling. You want more. You want to get deeper into the playoffs,'' Freeland said .

Given his heavy workload - a career-high 202 1/3 innings - he really didn't start throwing until January. Other than that, he kept his offseason routine pretty much the same.

''You can always improve,'' said Freeland, who turns 26 on May 14. ''Because if you're not looking to improve yourself in this game at this level, that you've figured it out, you're wrong and you're going to get hit in the mouth pretty hard the following season.''

Freeland was originally drafted in the 35th round out of Thomas Jefferson High School by Philadelphia. Instead of signing, he went to the University of Evansville, where he posted a 1.90 ERA his final season. He was taken by Colorado with the No. 8 overall pick in 2014.

He made the squad in 2017 and went on to win 11 games during his rookie season. His most notable start that season was against the Chicago White Sox when he came within two outs of the first no-hitter by a Rockies pitcher at Coors before surrendering a crisp single to Melky Cabrera.

Freeland was the model of consistency last season with 24 quality starts.

''With Kyle, there's always a desire to get better,'' manager Bud Black said. ''He's talented and he has a good head on his shoulders.''

As for having his name mentioned alongside the likes of New York's Jacob deGrom, Washington's Max Scherzer and Philly's Aaron Nola - the trio who finished ahead of him in last year's NL Cy Young vote - now that was humbling.

''It shows you that you belong there and you can compete,'' Freeland said. ''I'm excited to see where it takes me.''

About those tattoos along his right arm - simply his pride showing through.

''I love pitching here, love having the support group I have from friends, family and the entire fan base,'' Freeland said. ''Being a hometown kid, this is great. It would be a little weird to be somewhere else.''

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