NL Wild Card Game: How Kyle Freeland and the Rockies neutralized one of the Cubs’ most dangerous hitters

In a game that featured a passel of defensive gems, a perfectly-timed mad dash, an unlikely hero, and some of the most impeccable, pinpoint pitching you’ll ever see, the Colorado Rockies beat the Chicago Cubs 2-1, winning the longest playoff game in the 104-year history of Wrigley Field.

Controversy was the story of the day, before the game even began. At the end of the regular season, second-year starter Kyle Freeland had logged 202 1/3 innings, the fifth-highest total in the National League. That was 40 more innings than Freeland had ever thrown at any level of professional ball, minor league or major league. Moreover, he’d most recently pitched on Sept. 28, which quick math would tell you was just four days earlier.

Rockies manager Bud Black had all the information he needed to make a decision. With his young left-hander well past a career high in innings pitched, with just three days of rest on his ledger, Black decided to throw Freeland to the wolves, tapping him to start a do-or-die wild-card showdown in the pressure cooker at Clark and Addison.

You could at least understand the performance-related element of the decision. Freeland had established himself as the co-ace of the Rockies staff this season, along with right-hander German Marquez. When Marquez took his turn against the Dodgers on Monday in a game to decide the NL West, Freeland was the next man up the next day. In Freeland’s final 12 starts of the regular season, he’d fired 75 2/3 innings, striking out 74 batters, allowing just four home runs, and flashing a microscopic 2.14 ERA. Maybe, just maybe, he could keep that streak going against the Cubs, even on short rest, even long past the point at which you’d typically feel comfortable extending a still fairly green young pitcher.

Freeland came through, in spectacular fashion. He pounded the strike zone all night, throwing an amazing 60 of his 82 pitches (73 percent) for strikes. He hurled first-pitch strikes against 75 percent of the batters he faced, while inducing 11 swinging strikes. He spit on any concerns over fatigue, falling just one out short of completing seven innings. Best of all, he thoroughly dominated Cubs hitters, firing 6 2/3 shutout innings, while allowing just four hits and one walk, and striking out six.

Observers disagree on the exact nature of Freeland’s repertoire. We know that he throws a four-seam fastball and that he infrequently throws a changeup. Pitch-classifying systems are split on what comes next — his two-seam fastball/cutter hybrid, or his slider. Cutters and sliders do carry lots of similarities, and some pitchers will throw a pitch that encompasses elements of both, making precise classification a tough task.

What matters here aren’t the specifics, but rather this: Whatever the hell Kyle Freeland is throwing at any given time, it’s going to be thrown hard. Per Brooks Baseball, Freeland averaged 93.5 miles per hour on his four-seamer Tuesday night against the Cubs, topping out at 95.5. Meanwhile his slowest pitch was his changeup, which sat at and peaked just above 87 mph. It wasn’t that long ago that a pitcher could get by just fine with a fastball that averaged something close to 87 mph. Now, we get a 25-year-old upstart pitching for his team’s playoff life whose turtle pitch still tops 87.

Pitching experts like to talk about separation between pitches as being a key to success. We most commonly hear about pitch separation when referring to velocity. If a fastball and changeup are both thrown from the same arm slot with the same apparent level of effort, and the fastball zooms in 10 or more mph faster than the change, that’s some impressive separation. Since Freeland doesn’t offer that kind of velocity separation, he must find other ways to mess up hitters’ timing. The good news is that in just his second big-league season, Freeland became a master of separation, not through raw pitch speed, but rather with location. If you ever want to watch a pitcher paint the inside and outside corners, then throw high when a hitter’s expecting something low (and vice versa), you should watch Freeland at his best.

We got him at his best on Tuesday. And both Freeland and the pitching teammates who followed him seemed to save their nastiest stuff for Kris Bryant. For more on how the Rockies neutralized a former MVP and one of the Cubs’ most dangerous hitters, let’s bring in our pal Nick Pollack, ace pitching analyst at the excellent site PitcherList.com.

As Pollack explained, Freeland made it his mission to steer clear of the middle of the plate all night, doing so with machine-like efficiency against Bryant in particular. Check out Freeland’s first two offerings against Bryant, one up and on the inside corner, the other down and on the outside corner.

Another inch in either direction and both those pitches could have easily been called balls — that’s how precise Freeland was with his pitches. Indeed, Freeland did an excellent job of jamming right-handed hitters with low-to-mid-90s heat, pairing that pitch with … yes, we’ll call it a slider down and away. Freeland continued to tantalize Bryant with pitches alternately on the inside and outside corners, before finishing him off on the seventh pitch of the at-bat by blowing 94-mph cheese right by him.

That blow-away pitch might’ve actually been Bryant’s best chance to hit something all day, given that it was the rare offering that didn’t clip one of the two corners. Blame Bryant’s ailing shoulder, or maybe just the sheer befuddlement that came with facing Freeland and his mind-melting pitch sequencing on this night. Either way, he whiffed.

Facing Bryant again in the third, Freeland started by adding another wrinkle, chucking two fastballs on the outside edge, rather than up and in. The first of those two eliciting a defensive swing from Bryant, who by now might’ve been both confused by Freeland’s change in location as well as the lefty’s perplexing pause in the middle of his windup.

After wisely laying off a heater a bit farther off the plate away, Bryant got another surprise. Rather than challenge him with another inside fastball, Freeland chose a slider in. When you can hum that slider up to 90 mph, and bless it with enough break to go off the plate inside and right on Bryant’s hands, good things are bound to happen … from the pitcher’s point of view, anyway.

After just two matchups, it feels like Freeland’s already thrown everything but the kitchen sink against Bryant. So what does he do in their third battle, in the sixth inning? He breaks out the kitchen sink, in this case a sinking 92-mph fastball at the bottom of the zone. The result? A weak popup that makes Bryant visibly agitated as he prepares to shuffle back to the dugout.

The good news for Bryant is that his popup to right actually fell in for a hit, after Rockies outfielder David Dahl badly botched the play. The bad news is that with two on, one out, and a chance to hoist his team back into the game, Anthony Rizzo wrapped into an inning-ending double play. Those results aside, the more telling number was 11. As in, 11 pitches thrown by the potentially fatigued and overmatched Rockies starter against one of the scariest hitters in the game, and not a single solid swing made by Bryant on any of ’em.

Those three at-bats and 11 at-bats didn’t decide the game, per se.

For one thing, the Cubs would rally to tie the game in the eighth. After a Rizzo leadoff single, Cubs manager Joe Maddon summoned Terrance Gore, the only non-Charlie Finley-hired player in MLB history with more stolen bases than plate appearances, to pinch-run. The result provided another data point in the argument for managers carrying a designated speed demon at the end of their bench instead of a 93rd reliever: Easy stolen base, Javier Baez RBI single, 1-1 headed to the ninth.

For another, the Rockies needed a Tony Wolters (Tony Wolters?? Tony Wolters!!!!) single to finally break the tie and win it for Colorado in the 13th. For another, the combination of filthy fastball-and-slider-hurling Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino …

… Brooks Robinson reincarnate Nolan Arenado …

…and underrated Rockies righty Scott Oberg

… capped Bryant’s night of frustration.

Check out the final chart of Bryant’s six at-bats.

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