Braves again turn to their ace for Game 1 start

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Caption
Braves manager Brian Snitker addresses how pitcher Max Fried has developed over the season and his readiness to start in the NLDS.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Max Fried set the tone for his team in the first round of the playoffs last week by pitching seven scoreless innings in Game 1 against the Cincinnati Reds. The Braves hope he sets a similar tone for the second round.

The 26-year-old left-hander will start for the Braves Tuesday afternoon in Game 1 of a National League Division Series against the Miami Marlins at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

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It’s no surprise Fried is starting the opener of the best-of-five series because, amid all the injuries and other issues to hit the Braves' starting rotation this year, he has been the team’s undisputed ace since Mike Soroka was lost for the season on Aug. 3 with a torn Achilles tendon.

“It’s hard to replace Mike as far as the person, in the clubhouse, the intensity he brings every day,” Fried said Monday. "But for me, I just knew that I had to go out there and win games.

“That was my mentality from it. I try not to do too much because obviously you can push the boundaries and kind of get outside yourself. For me, it was a lot about trying to stay within myself, being confident. ... When I take the ball, my only plan is: What do I have to do to win this game?”

Fried posted a 7-0 record with a 2.25 ERA across 56 innings in the shortened regular season and was considered a Cy Young Award candidate until he was sidelined by back and ankle injuries in September. Then, despite having pitched only six innings in the previous 24 days, he again stepped up in the opener of the wild-card playoff series, a game the Braves eventually won 1-0 in 13 innings.

It’s hard to imagine how the Braves could have successfully navigated the regular season sans Soroka if not for Fried’s reliability.

“Honestly, I feel like I saw at the beginning of the year, even before Mike had gone down, that (Fried) was ready to fill that solid role of being able to pitch every fifth day and know what you’re going to get out of him,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said Monday. "I think we saw that a lot last year.

“Sometimes it’s easy to look at statistics and say his numbers might not have been such-and-such or as good as Mike’s last year. But we tended to win a lot of the games when he went out there and pitched, which at the end of the day … is my favorite stat, the win column.”

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In 2019, Fried won 17 games against six losses, but his ERA (4.02) was notably higher than Soroka’s 2.68. Fried was used out of the bullpen, rather than as a starter, in the 2019 Division Series.

But one year later, because of the season he has had and the attrition elsewhere in the rotation, Fried is the clear choice as the Braves’ NLDS Game 1 starter.

“I know Max … wanted to step up, and he did,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It was unbelievable what that kid did when Mike went down and how he elevated his game and what he meant for us every five days. That was something else. There’s a lot more going into it than just going out there and taking the ball. There’s a lot expectations, and ... I thought he did an unbelievable job of handling that situation.”

“He has been outstanding,” said third baseman Austin Riley, who was first a Fried teammate at the Braves’ Single-A Rome farm team in 2016. “We were talking the other day: His curveball has always been nasty, and his fastball has always been electric, and then he added that slider. When you’re facing a guy who has two pitches, you have a little bit of comfort … but when a guy has three pitches or even four going for him, it’s very tough on a lineup.”

Fried has started twice previously this season against the Marlins, pitching 6-1/3 scoreless innings at Miami on Aug. 15 and lasting only one inning at Truist Park on Sept. 23 because he tweaked his ankle while fielding a bunt in the top of the first. He surrendered homers to the next two batters after the bunt, the only two homers he has allowed this season.

“We’re extremely familiar with this team,” Fried said of the Marlins, against whom the Braves were 6-4 during the regular season. “They’re a really good, scrappy team. They’re not going to give at-bats away. They’re going to take advantage of mistakes. They’re going to run. They’re going to play good defense.”

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