Wild Card Game Preview: Stone Freeland

This is what a safety net looks like.

As we said before yesterday, both the Rockies and Cubs would have two chances to win one, and both blew their first one (and don’t get me started on how the Cubs and Joe Maddon “blew” it yesterday). The bonus for the Cubs is that they haven’t had to go anywhere. In fact, they haven’t gone anywhere in just about two weeks. The Rockies, meanwhile, had to fly to L.A. after their win at home on Sunday, and then pack it up onto here after yesterday’s loss. Although given the Cubs’ schedule over the past six weeks, whatever advantage that might be is negligible.

So really, this comes down to Kyle Freeland. He’s the Cy Young candidate you haven’t heard about. He’s not going to win, but he’s going to finish top-five, and probably even fourth. Maybe even pips Aaron Nola for third. He’s been that good.

The numbers won’t wow you with Freeland, though when you compensate for pitching half the time at Coors, they’re a little more impressive. He doesn’t strike many out, just a tick below eight per nine innings. He actually walks more people than you think, just over three per nine. He doesn’t generate a ton of grounders, at 46 percent. His ERA was 2.85 and his FIP was 3.57, though, which you can’t really deny in that park.

What he does do is limit hard contact. Both of his seasons in the majors have seen a line-drive rate under 20 percent, and his hard contact rate of 31.6 percent isn’t otherworldly but will play nicely in Denver. This year he’s kept his HR/FB rate at 8.5 percent, which isn’t easy to do in thin air. Now that could be a fluke, it could be by design, but we won’t really know until we get another season or two of sample to look at.

His stuff isn’t going to curse the gods at the fate they’ve tossed at the Cubs, either. His fastball tops out at 94 and averages 93.3 MPH. He basically has Tom Glavine’s repertoire, in that he throws three different fastballs and a change and that’s it. There’s a slider that he barely uses, and it’s basically just a more accented cutter. He also sinks his fastball, or just goes with a straight four-seamer. The change is what generates the most whiffs, but again, he’s not a strikeout guy.

Freeland has a bit of Jon Lester to him, in that he’s going to be on the corners and abandon the middle of the plate. He’s not going to give in, which might explain the slightly elevated walk-rate. He’s not afraid to get in on righties though, not merely just living on the outside corner. He’ll bore his four-seam in and sink the ball away and try and get chases on the change.

The big story, I guess, is that he’s wheeling back on just three days rest after shutting down the Nationals on Friday night in a game the Rockies had to have. He’s never done it. Last year, due to an innings limit, Freeland was pulled from the rotation late in the season. When he came out of the bullpen on shorter rest last year, it did not go well. He threw against the Marlins out of the ‘pen on just one day of rest, and gave up two hits and a run over four batters. He threw two days after that, only faced two guys and gave up a hit. He threw three innings out of the ‘pen on the last day of the season last year on three days’ rest, and gave up five hits and two runs. Needless to say, this is slightly encouraging for Cubs fans. This will also be Freeland’s first postseason appearance of any kind. Which can go either way.

More encouraging, the Rockies are something of the anti-Brewers. It’s unlikely Freeland can go that deep into the game unless the Cubs oblige him with a ton of two-pitch ABs (don’t rule this out). And the ‘pen has been an issue for the Rockies all season. Wade Davis hasn’t been anything near lockdown, and really only Adam Ottavino was any other arm they could count on. Scott Oberg had a big September, as did Davis, but if they’re forced to get 12-15 outs, they could struggle. If restricted to only six or thereabouts, they can get there. So the task is clear.

You can expect a lineup packed with righties, though it would be a big call to let Albert Almora hit four groundballs tonight. But he’s probably in, as Joe Maddon doesn’t seem to want Ian Happ to ever hit righty again. So probably Ben Zobrist-Almora-Jason Heyward in the outfield, though easily could see Kris Bryant shift to left and Zobrist to right, with David Bote in at third. Or Zobrist or Bote could go in at second because, quite simply, Daniel Murphy has been atrocious against lefties this year (and the defensive upgrade from Murphy would help Lester). Either way.

On the mound, look, you kind of know what you’re going to get from Jon Lester. It’s highly unlikely he’ll be bad. He probably won’t dominate, but instead gut through six innings because that’s what he does. There isn’t a huge sample of how the Rockies fare against him. Charlie Blackmon has touched him up in 10 ABs. Matt Holliday shreds him, but he’s unlikely to play give how hot David Dahl is.

And that’s the thing with the Rockies. You just associate them with a big-time offense, but they’re not. Nolan Arenado, Blackmon, and Trevor Story are real problems. Dahl is nuclear hot at the moment. But you can get the rest of it.

However, as we saw yesterday (infuriatingly), in one game any tomato can or stiff or rodeo clown can beat you.

I don’t know how the Cubs bridge nine innings after Lester. I don’t know who they call upon in the ‘pen. I don’t know if using Cole Hamels or Kyle Hendricks or both in relief completely borks their chances against the Brewers, should they win tonight. I don’t know that their offense will suddenly wake up after yesterday’s doldrums. I have no answers for you.

But generally, the Cubs have them. Or they find them. Or they make them up. It didn’t go right yesterday, but this is a new beast and a chance to start again.

One more chance to win one. These Cubs so rarely miss twice. Get no board.

Lead photo courtesy @Cubs on Twitter

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