A la Glavine, Max Fried has a championship start for Braves

Braves starting pitcher Max Fried reacts after striking out Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa (not pictured) to end the sixth inning in game 6 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park, Tuesday, November 2, 2021, in Houston, Tx. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Braves starting pitcher Max Fried reacts after striking out Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa (not pictured) to end the sixth inning in game 6 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park, Tuesday, November 2, 2021, in Houston, Tx. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

HOUSTON – This was a World Series where starting pitching was becoming a more frivolous accessory than Joc Pederson’s pearls. And these Braves were a team straying badly from a tradition of owning whole decades with their front-line arms.

In stepped Max Fried on Tuesday to put all such foolishness to rest, along the way also etching his name into Braves lore alongside another left-hander of slight build but stout heart.

As Tom Glavine ruled in a Series-clinching Game 6 in 1995, so did Fried lock down Tuesday’s Game 6 against the Houston Astros for the Braves second Atlanta-based world championship.

He didn’t go quite so long as Glavine, nor was his margin of error so razor thin (those Braves won that Game 6 1-0, these Braves virtually coasted 7-0). But after the Braves had slogged through two consecutive “bullpen games,” Fried’s six shutout innings represented an oasis of calm and normalcy amid all the pitching confusion of this postseason.

“An incredible performance when we needed it most,” summarized first baseman Freddie Freeman.

The specialness of the moment was played out as the team celebrated a title on a foreign field. Fried’s father made his way to the mound and scooped up a few handfuls of dirt and squirrelled it away in a pocket.

“He’ll have that to remember this moment for a lifetime,” his dad said. “This is a culmination of his dreams.”

“That is really cool,” Fried said of his father’s gesture. “That’s stuff you dream of. To be in this position I couldn’t be happier.”

Forgotten was Fried’s last outing against the Astros, in which he yielded six runs in five innings. In fact, the Braves had lost his past two postseason starts. Never had he lost three consecutive starts in his young career. He now can keep that claim all winter long now.

While not quite as statistically dazzling as Glavine’s Series-winning performance 26 years ago – an eight-inning one-hitter – Fried’s performance was as tough-minded as any that Glavine ever authored.

Not that Fried was interested in any immediate historical comparisons. “I’m just happy to win the game and be able to win the game for these guys,” he said when the Glavine parallel was mentioned. “It was a hard series. That’s a really good team over there. I knew I had to go out there and leave everything I have and just try to finish it off.”

The first inning Tuesday decided to test both his body and his resolve. Houston’s flash of a leadoff man Jose Altuve hit a groundball that took shortstop Dansby Swanson into the outfield grass, forcing a throw that had no chance of beating the runner to first. The Astros had broken Fried down with a collection of modestly struck, judiciously placed balls in Game 2. And now here they were trying to work off that same script again.

Then came the potential disaster. No. 2 hitter Michael Brantley hit an infield chopper that Freeman charged. For a moment, he was indecisive about how to feed the ball to the covering Fried. He thought about an underhand toss, but then settled on an overhand flip. The timing between he and Fried was shattered. Not only did Fried miss the bag at first, but Brantley also stepped squarely on Fried’s right ankle as he ran on by. The potential of the Braves losing a second starter in this Series – a line drive had broken Charlie Morton’s leg in Game 1 – seemed quite real.

“Scary. Very scary,” manager Brian Snitker said.

But rather than hurt Fried, the sequence seemed to only reset his resolve.

“I threw a couple pitches and I noticed it wasn’t anything serious and I just knew that as long as it wasn’t going to be anything serious or threatening at all, I could pitch through it,” Fried said. “I just wanted to leave it all out there. I knew it was going to be the last time taking the mound and I was going to have no regrets.”

11/2/21 - Houston, Tx. - Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried has his ankle stepped on by Houston Astros left fielder Michael Brantley (23) as Fried fielded first base during the first inning in game 6 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park, Tuesday, November 2, 2021, in Houston, Tx. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Credit: Curtis Compton

Facing runners on first and second with nobody out, he went all untouchable on the Astros. He struck out No. 3 hitter Carlos Correa, got Yordan Alvarez to ground out to second and blew a third strike past a frozen Yuli Gurriel to end the Astros only real threat of the night. The final pitch to Gurriel was measured at just over 98 mph, reportedly the hardest pitch Fried has thrown all season.

And as the Braves kept adding on runs, Fried just seemed to get tougher. All Glavine had to work with on that long-ago classic outing was a solo David Justice home run, and he had to make that stand up. Jorge Soler provided significantly more cushion in the third inning Tuesday, launching the kind of shot they used to monitor nearby at mission control. With two on, his 446-foot homer cleared the left side of Minute Maid Park, heading toward Crawford Street.

The Braves added another three runs in the fifth, highlighted by Dansby Swanson’s two-run homer. And more would be forthcoming.

But it was as if Fried never looked at the scoreboard. For his next five innings of work, he retired 14 of the 16 hitters he faced. The Astros scratched out three singles – two of those quickly nullified by double plays. None of them ventured into scoring position. Through six innings Fried gave up four hits, struck out six and walked none.

Fried’s performance stood out all the more in light of how this Series had tried to so devalue starting pitching. Before this night, no starter for either team had gone six innings – threatening to make this the first World Series featuring that quirk. Through the first five games – thanks to Morton’s brief outing as well as the call to start unproven youngsters Dylan Lee and Tucker Davidson – Braves starters had worked a mere 14-2/3 innings while their relievers had toiled for 29-1/3.

On Tuesday, though, the Braves had their traditional proven starter going on full rest, and that’s still a formula that works, just as it did in the 1990s.

There was no indication that Fried couldn’t have gone deeper into this game. But even as he was cruising, having thrown 74 pitches, Fried, too, would fall victim to the short attention span that baseball today suffers regarding its starters. As the top of the seventh inning rolled around, his teammates lined up to hug Fried and whisper thanks into his ear, his work done. Bring on the analytically approved parade of late-inning specialists.

Still, keep in mind that it was a starter who did the heavy lifting in finishing off this championship. Just like old times.

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