It was the top of the fourth inning and the score was 4-3 in favor of the Rockies (23-27). It was a full count and there were two runners on base with no outs. Rockies starting pitcher Kyle Freeland whipped in an 85.7 mph breaking ball that Baltimore Orioles (16-36) second baseman Jonathan Villar got underneath and hit into the waiting glove of a fan sitting in the first row behind the left centerfield wall.
A collective groan was uttered by the 41,234 fans in attendance at Coors Field. It was a deflating blow to the Rockies, and one they couldn’t overcome despite a solid offensive effort. The final score was 9-6 in the second contest of a three-game home series for Colorado. The result caused the Rockies to fall 10 games behind the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers.
This has been an all too familiar feeling for Rockies fans. Saturday was their ninth loss in May and their sixth loss of the month in which the Rockies scored five or more runs.
The disparity between the teams offensive output and porous pitching has been apparent all season long, and it begins with Kyle Freeland.
Seven months ago the hometown hero was the toast of the Mile High City. Fast forward to today and the 26-year-old’s Cy Young caliber season is nothing more than a distant memory.
His 2-6 record in 11 starts in 2019 is far from what the Rockies need in order to contend for a third straight NL playoff appearance, underscored by Freeland being winless in six starts the last four weeks.
On Saturday against the Orioles Freeland lasted a mere 4 innings and surrendered 7 runs (all earned) on 10 hits, two of which were home runs.
Rockies Manager Bud Black has maintained his confidence in Freeland throughout the entirety of this season and continued along with the same narrative following Saturday’s loss.
“All in all, I think the first three innings and even in the fourth, his stuff was good,” Black said. “He's just not making a critical pitch at critical times, and that's what it boils down to. The backbreaker, the crusher, was the three-run homer.”
No player on a baseball team is more familiar with a pitcher's touch than the catcher. On Saturday, and for much of last season, that was Chris Iannetta.
The pair are close, and Freeland relies heavily on Iannetta’s input and experience.
Iannetta has noticed a few mechanical disparities between Freeland's 18-win 2018 season and this year. Like Black, however, he thought Freeland’s Saturday performance also came with some positives.
“It's mechanics and confidence. His arm is a little lower...he's not behind the ball like he was last year,” Iannetta said. “But he showed signs of getting back to where he needs to be mechanically.”
Freeland is not a power pitcher. The command that he relied on heavily last season has proved to be elusive in 2019, and his release point has been marred with inconsistency.
“The pitches feel fine, it's the location of those pitches,” Freeland said.
That inconsistency has led to a 6.71 ERA and an NL leading 14 home runs surrendered. He hasn't been credited with a win since April 18 -- 38 days. Comparatively last season through 11 starts Freeland sported a 3.43 ERA, had a 5-5 record (after starting 0-4) and had only given up 8 home runs.
To Freeland’s credit this whole season he has handled his struggles like a true professional. He hasn’t made excuses, has admitted to his poor play and vowed to be better for his teammates and fans.
“I’m trying to be as positive as I can. It's obviously tough. It's not easy for someone to go through this, no matter what level you're at, Freeland said. “I’m trying to stay positive, trying to listen to everyone one that you can, and trying to learn as much as you can. I hope that things turn sooner rather than later.”
Following Saturday’s game, Freeland didn’t mince his words. He found no “silver lining” in the defeat, unlike Black and Iannetta. He is his own toughest critic.
Black has reiterated time and time again that the problem isn’t mental, and trusts that his pitcher will rebound from the slump.
“We'll see how this all plays out. Is it difficult right now? Absolutely. But, you know, Kyle will come out of this,” Black said.
He added, “I do know this... I trust him.”
Trevor Story agrees with his manager and reiterated that the team is behind Freeland.
“He’s always very prepared,” Story said. “It’s not going the way he wants it to right now, but we have all the faith that he’s going to get it going.”
Freeland has faced and overcome slumps before. A rough stretch post shoulder surgery in AAA during the 2016 season comes to mind. The question on everyone's mind is, can he do it again on a bigger scale?
It’s unfair to put the full blame of the Rockies struggles squarely on the shoulders of Freeland. With the exception of German Marquez and Jon Gray(for the most part), the rest of the Rockies starting rotation has been equally bad.
The Rockies sport the worst team ERA in the NL at 5.11. Furthermore, the Rockies bullpen is taking a beating because the starting rotation isn’t doing its job.
What many fans and pundits believed would be a strength for this year's iteration of the Rockies has quickly turned into a glaring weakness.
“We need better starting pitching on a consistent basis and for us to get where we want to be that's got to have to happen, Black said.”
The Rockies season is far from over. There is still a lot of baseball left to be played, but should the Rockies hope to find themselves in Rocktober, Kyle Freeland and the Rockies rotation need to match their offense and find a level of consistency.