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Rockies vs. Cubs: Kyle Freeland takes center stage in NL Wild Card game

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The Rockies turn to their star lefty in an elimination game.

The Colorado Rockies are a team built on pitching. That has been true all season and promises to entertain a number of amused analysts and fans as they see how this team actually reached the playoffs (they already knew the Rockies can hit, if you haven’t heard).

Kyle Freeland is the leader of that pitching staff. He is right there with Nolan Arenado as a face of the Rockies, a guy who is clearly an emotional leader and has the numbers to back it up. The intrigue of his match-up with Chicago Cubs starter Jon Lester in the NL Wild Card game Tuesday night starts with their respective statistics but goes beyond that in terms of his importance to the Rockies.

The word “ace” gets thrown around in a number of contexts with a number of working definitions. If every team has an ace, meaning it as a shorthand for best starter, then Freeland is the Rockies’ ace. If aces are more scarce than that, placing them in the rarefied air of names like Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer or even Lester, then Freeland probably isn’t there yet — but he’s submitted his application and been called back for a second interview.

Freeland has already put his name among the elite with his 2018 statistics. His 8.4 bWAR is fourth in all of baseball around guys like Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Chris Sale. His 2.85 ERA is eighth in the big leagues, and the other guys don’t pitch their home games at Coors Field.

But there is something else about guys we think of as “aces.” It’s the big moments. It’s the trust you place in them in a big spot after 90 or 100 pitches that you wouldn’t the other pitchers on the team. It’s their fearlessness on the mound and their fist pumps after a big out. Those start to sound like cliches, but it just feels different when you watch these guys. And this year, it feels different with Freeland.

We’ve seen some moments like this from Freeland already. For example, he has stared down Madison Bumgarner twice this season and matched him pitch for pitch. He was the starting pitcher when the Rockies clinched a playoff spot. But there has been nothing like this: an elimination game in the national spotlight against the Chicago Cubs.

Freeland had to be the Colorado starter for this game. There’s real risk with starters on short rest, and it might not work out. But even if Freeland only lasts three innings, it was the right decision. With all respect to Antonio Senzatela, the Rockies had to go with the guy who can stare down that moment and pitch like an ace (using that second definition, of course).

Ace debates are met with a lot of snark. They should be. The definition is subjective and the game is trending towards the kind of bullpen usage to make aces less important. But there are still those starters who stand above the rest. Kyle Freeland is trying to prove he is one of those special pitchers. If his 2018 season didn’t already prove that, a strong start in the NL Wild Card game almost certainly would.

Much will be made of Freeland’s success at Coors Field, especially given the fascination with that park from national coverage. But his biggest chance yet comes away from altitude. Wrigley Field will be packed. It will be loud. It will be a setting where players can do something memorable.

There’s a lot of ways the Rockies can win (or lose), but a victory led by Kyle Freeland would show the rest of the country what we already know about him as a leader of the Rockies and as one of the best pitchers in baseball.