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Rockies' Freeland brings nerves, local connection and plenty of supporters in his big league debut

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Posted at 3:19 PM, Apr 06, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-07 16:42:31-04

DENVER -- Kyle Freeland finds comfort on the mound. During his senior year at Thomas Jefferson High School in 2011, Freeland and his father Don would arrive before his starts and manicure the hill to the left-hander's liking. 

"His relationship with his parents (Don and Susan) is something special, but especially his dad. His dad was always happy to help," said Robby Bales, Freeland's high school coach his senior season. "I would show up the to the yard thinking I was early, and they would be claying the mound. It was the most supportive situation I have seen."

It explains why Freeland's ascension provides overwhelming joy and intrigue on Friday. The former local prep star will walk from the dugout to the mound and into the crescendo of 48,000 screaming fans. Freeland, 23, makes his big league debut at Coors Field. It represents a big deal because of where he grew up, 10 miles south down I-25. That he pulls the curtain in the home opener creates goose bumps worthy of a Disney script.

"My emotions are going to be running high, but for me it's going to be about staying focused on the task at hand," Freeland said. "I am not letting outside factors affect me. I will be controlling my breathing and taking my breaths when I need them."

Growing up, Freeland attended games on Blake Street. He walked around the field with his youth baseball team. He adopted the Rockies as his favorite players, especially fellow left-hander Jeff Francis. Their stories offer striking similarities. The Rockies selected the left-handed Francis eighth overall in the 2002 from the University of British Columbia. He won 64 games in eight seasons for Colorado, 17 in 2007 during the franchise's magical Rocktober run to the World Series.

Francis made his debut Aug. 25, 2004 in Atlanta. He vomited -- his pregame routine for his first two seasons because it "made no sense to hold it down and not feel well," he said with a laugh Thursday -- and performed admirably with his mother screaming his nickname "Boomer!" after big pitches. 

"If I told you I didn't hear her that day, I was lying. But in some ways it relaxed me because that's the voice I knew growing up," Francis told Denver7 from his home in London, Ontario. "(Former teammate) Cory Sullivan told me Freeland was pitching and that he looked up to me. It's flattering. I've heard a lot about him. I am excited for him. It will all be new to him. Everything will be bigger, better and louder. But they will be cheering for him. The easiest way to calm yourself down, I'd say, is for him to rely on his preparation."

Freeland earned a reputation as a hard worker, dating to his days at Holm Elementary where his mother works. Through his first three high school seasons, Freeland boasted a strong resume, but not skills to wow Division I scouts. He began his senior year in December hitting 84 miles per hour on the radar gun, building arm strength. He continued to pump fastballs, increasing his velocity. He threw a no-hitter against George Washington. In his next game, a one-hitter, a Kansas City Royals scout clocked him at 91 mph, serious fuzz to complement a big breaking ball. The Phillies arrived for his state playoff game, and ultimately drafted Freeland in the 35th round.

After striking out 128 hitters his senior season, the lanky lefty signed with the University of Evansville rather than go pro. It was with the Aces that his climb toward Friday began to take shape. He went from an interesting prospect to a shutdown performer. He grew an inch, added muscle, and dropped jaws with his strike throwing proficiency.  

His junior season he posted a 10-2 record with a 1.90 ERA, becoming a semi-finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, college baseball's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Only Andy Benes posted bigger numbers for the Aces. Like Benes, Freeland was taken in the first round. The Rockies selected him eighth overall, signing him for $2.3 million, $800,000 below slot money. Freeland wanted to be in Colorado. 

"I will never forget that moment when he hugged his dad on the day he was drafted," Bales said. "I can still see it."

Just when it seemed like the story could not get any better, it did. Freeland began charging through the minor league system. His cross-fire delivery proved effective, as did the sharp cut on his fastball. The final hurdle, as it often with young arms, is developing a third pitch. It came last summer for Freeland while playing for Triple-A Albuquerque. He began to feel conviction in his changeup, leaving a scout to tell Denver7 he believes Freeland can develop into a No. 2-No. 3 starter in the big leagues. The confidence carried him through spring training where he earned the fifth spot in the Rockies' rotation. He joins a short list of Colorado natives to pitch for the Rockies -- Cherry Creek's John Burke, Lamar's Scott Elarton, Heritage's Nate Field and Northglenn's Mark Knudson (Greeley Central's Shawn Chacon was born in Alaska).

The previous Thomas Jefferson pitcher to follow Freeland's path? Tyler Green. Reached in Phoenix on Thursday by Denver7, the former Philadelphia Phillies top prospect offered advice for his fellow Spartan.

"The biggest thing is to trust your stuff, trust your catcher. He was obviously doing something right to get there. And throw with intent," said Green, who won 18 big league games, and made his debut in 1993, one month before Freeland was born. "I am definitely going to be keeping an eye on how he does. It always cool to see another kid from your school make it. I don't people understand how hard it is to reach the big leagues. I am happy for him."

Freeland figures to have more than 100 people in the stands among friends and family. When Green first pitched in Denver, his guest list included 70 names. For Freeland, it is about keeping the ball on the ground, staying within himself. He will be facing former Cheyenne Mountain prep star Brandon McCarthy of the Dodgers. The key is keeping the Rockies in the game, not trying to win by himself.

"He's a young guy," said manager Bud Black, whose team won three of four games in Milwaukee to start the season. "But I don't mind that. He doesn't have any fear."

Freeland remembers walking into the Coors Field as a child, the "sights, the sounds, just everything." The kid has become The Man. Freeland will now turn the page on the next chapter of his dream, while taming the pterodactyls in his stomach. He will walk out the mound, this time as the son of proud parents who don't have to worry about claying the dirt for him.

"There are a going to be a lot of people rooting for him, including me," Francis. "To grow up in Denver and pitch for the Rockies, it sure makes for a great story, right? I am going to be tuning in and pulling for him that's for sure."

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