A frenzy over Fried, starter-turned-reliever

This National League Division Series was supposed to belong to a pitcher from Harvard-Westlake, a high-end school in a high-end part of Los Angeles. Two games in, a different pitcher from Harvard-Westlake has become a major talking point. The Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty might have been baseball’s best pitcher over the season’s second half, but Max Fried – who was two years ahead of Flaherty back in the day – is suddenly the buzz.

Fried won 17 games – the second-most behind Stephen Strasburg among National League pitchers – for the Braves this season. He has left his mark on this series with two electric innings of relief: two innings, four strikeouts, one hit, no walks, no runs. He was the Braves’ first left-handed reliever in Game 1; he was their first reliever, period, in Game 2.

» RELATED: Braves-Cardinals results, remaining schedule

Fried has been so stellar that he has all but pitched himself out of a potential Game 4 start. “I don’t know that he hasn’t already,” manager Brian Snitker said before a Braves’ workout at Busch Stadium on Saturday. “Just with the back-to-back (appearances) and the two days (between Games 2 and 4.) I think you’d be asking a lot of him to that.”

Then: “(A Game 4 start) is not out of the question. But because of what we went through and where we are right now, he’s become a very valuable part of the bullpen right now.”

And bullpens, as we’re reminded on a daily basis, are a huge deal in October. (The Nationals have played three postseason games; Strasburg and Max Scherzer have each been deployed in relief.) That in mind, Snitker was asked if his repurposed starter might be asked to close games before this month is done.

Snitker: “I don’t think you would rule that out. I think he’s equipped for it. You’ll just have to see how this thing does day-to-day. I don’t know that there’s not a scenario there.”

Losing Chris Martin, the designated eighth-inning man, to a tweaked oblique before he could throw a postseason pitch 1 forced the Braves to rethink. Only two relievers were used in Game 2 – Fried in the eighth, closer Mark Melancon in the ninth. Melancon survived the inning, but not before yielding two more hits, which made seven in two innings, which isn’t going to cut it.

Braves fans react after relief pitcher Max Fried (left) strikes out a St. Louis Cardinals batter in the eighth inning.  (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

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Credit: Jason Getz

There’s a template for young-starter-as-shutdown-reliever. Forced to close because Jason Isringhausen was hurt in September, Adam Wainwright -- the Braves prospect shed for one season of J.D. Drew -- helped lift the 2006 Cardinals to an improbable World Series title. David Price, the first player drafted in 2007, worked as a reliever as Tampa Bay crashed the 2008 World Series. That Wainwright, who’s 38, will start Game 3 for the Redbirds tells us his fling as an emergency closer didn’t derail a stellar starting career.

One October re-assignment doesn’t mean Fried, who’s 25, won’t be starting games again come April. Right now, though, he’s the Braves’ most gifted reliever. As Mike Soroka, who’ll start Game 3 against Wainwright, said Saturday: “The stuff he can show out of the bullpen … to me, it’s as good as it gets. Nobody throws that hard with that curveball on command.”

Said Fried: “Whatever it takes to win. If that’s coming in late in the game, I’ll be sure I’m ready to take the ball.”

Does he have a preference? (Bred as a starter, he did long-relief duty as a big-leaguer in 2017 and 2018.) “No,” he said. “At this point it doesn’t matter to me.”

Fried was drafted seventh overall by San Diego in 2012, nine slots ahead of Lucas Giolito, another Harvard-Westlake teammate. (Giolito won 14 games for the White Sox this season. Flaherty was taken 37th by St. Louis two years later.) Fried was sent to the Braves in the Justin Upton trade of December 2014. The Braves wanted him even though he was coming off Tommy John surgery. By 2016, he was a part of the rotation that carried Single-A Rome to the Sally League title. The others: Soroka, Touki Toussaint and Kolby Allard. Ronald Acuna and Austin Riley were there, too.

» RELATED: Photos from Game 2

The Braves always liked Fried, though maybe not as much as they liked Soroka. The loose consensus on Fried was that he was something between a fifth starter and a long reliever. Injuries to Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman led to Fried being pressed into rotational service, and he never let go. His only relief appearances of the 2019 regular season were in the season’s first two games and, as a tuneup, its next-to-last.

The difference this season  was that Fried he found a slider to augment his fastball and curve. (Opponents hit .197 against that slider.) The Braves would have been happy for Fried to start Game 4, but plans changed. Martin got hurt. Luke Jackson got lit up. As we speak, the Braves have more confidence in Fried than any other reliever. There’s thought of using him as the Indians once did Andrew Miller, who’s now a Cardinal, and the Brewers did Josh Hader last fall. Meaning: Whatever the inning of highest-leverage is, Fried gets to work it.

A guy wins 17 games and we shrug. The same guy enters the crucible of playoff baseball and flat-out deals and we want to know, “Can this guy pitch every inning the starters don’t?” The short answer: No, he can’t. But Fried will be handed the ball a lot more this October, and he could get it when/if there’s clinching to be done.