Daily Camera (Boulder)

Rodrigues wins over hearts with puck ritual

Rockies starter was 9-11 with 4.53 ERA in 2022

- By Patrick Saunders psaunders@denverpost.com

There are about 30 pucks sitting on the kitchen counter, and Evan and Christie Rodrigues don’t know what to do with them.

The stockpile grows every time the Avalanche play a home game. Soon it’ll be a small hill. If the Avs make a deep playoff run, maybe it’ll blend in with the Front Range behind the Denver skyline.

Evan can’t secretly recycle the pucks. His oldest is getting too smart. Fouryear-old Grayson Rodrigues organizes them by date, rememberin­g the score of each game.

“I honestly think he’d know,” Evan said. “Definitely can’t do that.”

The kitchen counter is where the remnants reside from a new fan-favorite tradition at Ball Arena. Rodrigues has quickly earned Colorado’s admiration since signing a oneyear contract last September

— no easy task for a new guy who shows up right after the city has finished celebratin­g a Stanley Cup and mourning the free agents who signed elsewhere.

It helps to register 26 points in 42 games, as Rodrigues has. His role has ranged from top-line wing to middle-six center, helping the Avs fill any given gaps. But part of his presence in the Colorado consciousn­ess has also been a result of his home pregame ritual, which is displayed on the jumbotron every night.

After line rushes, Rodrigues

skates to the corner of the rink and attempts to shoot a puck through a camera hole in the glass. He tries up to three times. If none make it through his narrow target, he picks up the puck with his stick and passes it through the glass for Grayson, who gleefully accepts it on the other side. Then dad gathers another for his younger son, 2-yearold Noah. He sometimes high-fives them against the glass or blows them a kiss.

The resemblanc­es are uncanny. Evan has a wide grin that matches his sons’ every night.

“I was really cold recently,” the 29-year-old forward deadpanned in January, reflecting on his shooting percentage. “I was pretty good at the beginning of the year. Like, I was really hot. Probably like 50%. And then when I came back from injury, I didn’t get one until three games ago. And now I’m 2-for-3 in the last three.”

The tradition wasn’t always like this. In fact, the Ball Arena jumbotron has ended up cataloging the growth of the Rodrigues boys in real time for Denver to enjoy, home-video style.

“It’s funny,” said Evan’s wife, Christie. “They’ve drawn a lot of attention, and it was totally accidental and organic.”

Evan has saucered pucks through the glass dating back to his time in Pittsburgh. It started as an independen­t routine and developed into a souvenir giveaway for random fans. Grayson and Noah wouldn’t arrive at the arena with Christie until game time.

Grayson was born in Buffalo, where his dad started his NHL career from 2015-20.

In 2018, Kyle Freeland dazzled Rockies fans. Five years later, they’re still waiting for a worthy sequel.

The Denver native, who’s a much different pitcher now, is confident he can deliver.

“I definitely believe I can,” the left-hander said. “I’ve been saying this for the past few years. It’s going to come down to how consistent I can be over the course of 30-33 starts. It’ll come down to going deep into ballgames and keeping runners off base. It’ll be about letting my teammates know, early and often, that my confidence is high, and that when I’m on the mound they are going to feel that confidence.”

Freeland’s goal is as steep and lofty as the Colorado mountains he loves. The Rockies signed him to a five-year, $64.5 million contract last year, so they desperatel­y need him to meet expectatio­ns to surprise in the National League West.

In 2018, at age 25 and in his second big-league season, Freeland finished fourth in National League Cy Young Award voting after going 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA. His ERA was the lowest in a full season by a starter in franchise history. And he was a workhorse. His 202 2/3 innings pitched ranked fifth in the NL.

But 2019 was a disaster — 3-11 record, 6.73 ERA, and a late-may demotion to Triple-a — as opposing hitters counterpun­ched and Freeland failed to find an answer. That humbling experience forced Freeland, always a technician and never a flamethrow­er, to retool.

Consider these numbers from Fangraphs:

— In 2018, Freeland threw his fastball 52.4% of the time at an average of 91.6 mph. He also threw a cutter (29.3%, 85.8 mph), a changeup (13.8%, 85.6 mph) and a slider (4.5%, 81.2 mph).

— Last season, when Freeland went 9-11 with a 4.53 ERA in 31 starts, he threw a fastball 45.4% of the time averaging 90.0 mph, followed by a harder slider (22.6%, 85.5 mph), a curveball (18.2%, 81.0 mph) and a changeup (13.8%, 84.8). The cut fastball is no longer a major part of his repertoire.

Freeland has been working hard to master his slider, trying to give it a sharper break rather than the cutter shape it follows when he doesn’t throw the pitch well.

Like many of his pitching mates, Freeland is constantly tweaking his changeup, trying to get his arm action right to where hitters think Freeland is throwing a fastball only to be fooled by the offspeed pitch.

But the left-hander believes his curveball can be a difference-maker going forward.

“That’s a pitch I completely redid in 2020,” Freeland said. “I moved to a spiked-curveball grip and it was one of those pitches I was able to harness very quickly. I know how to throw it for a strike, and I know how to throw it for a swing and miss. And I can throw it to set the hitter up from something else…it’s become my go-to pitch.”

Manager Bud Black, always the optimist, believes the Rockies’ rotation is poised to rebound from last season’s debacle when starters combined to go 39-66 with a 5.22 ERA — the second-worst in the majors, ahead of only Washington (5.97).

“I thought the starting pitchers would be a strength of our team,” Black said. “We fell short of our standards. I think all those guys are ready to set the record straight about our rotation. And I think those guys are all in a better place mentally and confidentl­y and with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder to perform like they are very capable of.”

Black has a certain kinship with Freeland. When Freeland expresses confidence, Black believes him.

“I absolutely, 100% think that Kyle can be just as effective, performanc­ewise, this year as he was in his big year of 2018,” Black said. “Even last year, if you look hard at the numbers, they’re not drasticall­y off from what he did in 2018.”

In 2018, Freeland posted a 1.245 WHIP, walked 3.1 batters per nine innings, struck out 7.7, and served up 0.8 home runs. In 2022, the lefty had a 1.408 WHIP, struck out 6.8, walked 2.7, and gave up 1.0 homers.

At 29, Freeland remains a work in progress. He’s lost a couple of ticks off his fastball, so pitch location and guile are more important than ever.

“Kyle has made multiple adjustment­s in his repertoire over the last couple of years,” Black said. “I think we’re beginning to see the benefits of those adjustment­s in his repertoire, his mechanics, and how he gets his outs….as long as Kyle makes his starts I truly believe he will be one of the big reasons why we will be successful.”

Freeland said he’s had “an excellent offseason,” and he’s ahead of schedule so he’ll be ready to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, which begins March 11.

“My arm feels really good and I’ve gotten quite a few bullpens in already, to where it’s getting to the point where I’m ready to start facing some hitters because bullpens are getting kind of boring,” he said.

It remains to be seen if Freeland can ever become one of the National League’s best pitchers again, but there’s no question he’s committed to the endeavor.

“I’m learning how to be more creative and constantly forcing myself to learn more about this game,” he said. “I’ll always be refining my stuff and my mechanics and I’ll never become complacent with what I do.

“I had to learn the hard way, as we know, but I’m also glad I did learn it and it created the pitcher I am today.”

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