If you asked Kyle Freeland’s teammates and coaches to use one word to describe him, the vast majority will pick the same one; competitor.

His love of high-stakes competition is evident everywhere from the golf course to the mound. From game one of 162 in any given season to the 2018 Wild Card Game where he defeated the winningest pitcher in postseason history, Freeland brings an intense focus. And this March, he took that competitiveness to the international stage, pitching three quality innings in the championship game against Japan.

On Thursday afternoon, Freeland will make yet another start in the home opener at Coors Field in front of his hometown crowd, just as he did in his MLB debut.

“The closest thing I can compare it to is playoff baseball in the big leagues,” he said of how World Baseball Classic experience. “I was able to feel more comfortable in the game against Japan. I was going until they told me to stop. I felt like I was able to accomplish what I needed to.”

Don’t think too long on how fast it seems to have happened that Freeland is now in his seventh MLB season and so he is used to a typical Spring Training by now and this was anything but. A few low-stakes scrimmages in early March followed by some of the most intense baseball he is ever played followed by a few more bits of practice and warmup.

“I had to start earlier getting my arm going just knowing there was a possibility I was going to be on the roster for Team USA. Everything that I was doing leading up to the WBC was focused on getting in that mindset of pitching in very meaningful games right out of the chute. So it was a little bit different but it wasn’t something where I felt like I was out of my element where I didn’t know what to do. I’m able to control my emotions and mentality and focus on what I need to get done.”

It’s something we have seen throughout his career. The higher the stakes, the better he seems to perform, using his emotions as a way to heighten his performance rather than hinder it.

This is also the mentality that he will need to employ toward the uphill climb he has ahead of him, trying to become one of the few starting pitchers in Colorado Rockies history to achieve longevity.

The list of guys who have managed to pitch above the league average for more than five or six seasons for this team can be counted on one hand. And you’d have some fingers left over. 

He is also coming off of a season where he posted an ERA+ of 103 which, outside of a mechanically disastrous sophomore campaign, is the worst mark of his career. Before last season, Freeland signed an extension with the Rockies that will keep him here (barring any trades) through at least 2026, his age 33 season, with a potential vesting option for the next year. It will pay out a total of $64.5 million.

If Freeland is going to make good on that contract, he will need to use his innate competitiveness not just on big games on the world’s stage or opening day but on getting back to his best self and leading this rotation into a better era.

In the offseason, the Rockies signed a few veteran position players (Mike Moustakas, Jurickson Profar) and also signed several relievers but decided to run it back with internal candidates when it comes to the starting pitching.

Some would say this undercuts their message of trying to compete and it has already born out a bit in the early results as Jose Urena and Ryan Feltner have struggled. But Freeland sees a front office that has some faith in their guys and might have a bit more depth than people think.

“It’s nice to have that confidence,” he says. “We have some younger guys who have started to learn at the big league level (Feltner) and even if it’s in Triple-A it’s nice to have that depth. There’s gonna be guys chomping at the bit to try to crack our rotation.”

With Peter Lamber, Karl Kaufman, and eventually Ryan Rolison once he returns from injury, the Rockies do indeed have some intriguing new arms that we should see at some point this season. But it all begins with Freeland and Marquez. In order for this team to build around any semblance of what they have, they must get right and they must do it this season.

So, once again, Kyle Freeland has a mighty challenge on his plate. It isn’t one big game. It isn’t one intense moment. Now, he must learn how to captain the ship.