Max Fried: ‘I feel good’ for first postseason start

Even for the relative veteran of the Braves' starting pitching rotation, this is new.

Max Fried will make the first postseason start of his major-league career when the Braves open a best-of-three wild-card playoff series Wednesday against the Cincinnati Reds at Truist Park.

Fried, a 26-year-old left-hander, has started 50 regular-season games for the Braves, including 30 last year and 11 this year. But his only previous postseason experience came in eight relief appearances across the 2018 and 2019 Division Series.

“You understand the difference between playoff baseball and regular season, obviously,” Fried said Tuesday. “The stakes are higher. The intensity is higher. It’s going to be a little different without the energy that the fans bring in, but I still think everyone is going to be able to bring that same intensity to playoff baseball, knowing how important these games are.”

Fried’s first postseason start follows a shortened season in which he went 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA across 56 innings and for a while appeared to be a Cy Young Award candidate. But it also follows a 3-1/2-week stretch in which he has pitched only six innings.

He went on the injured list because of back spasms after a notable velocity drop in a Sept. 5 start. He returned from the IL to pitch five innings Sept. 18, but left a Sept. 23 start – his last of the regular season – after one inning because he “tweaked” a left ankle while fielding a bunt.

“I feel good,” Fried said Tuesday. “The one thing is that I might not have as many innings as I would have liked coming into (the postseason), but I’ve been able to throw the ball every single day. As far as my touch and my feel, I still feel it’s there. I’m feeling really confident. ... So, as far as rust, I’m not too worried about it.”

He tested the ankle while throwing batting practice Sunday and said he has “no reservations” about it.

“In talking to him,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said, “it’s as good as he’s felt all year, total-body-wise.”

Still, Fried’s limited innings this month raise the question of how deep into the game the Braves can expect him to go Wednesday.

“Our eyes will tell us where he’s at,” Snitker said. “He, I’m sure, will be forthright with us, and … if he can go five innings, that’d be great."

The Braves need Fried to be on top of his game as he opposes Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer, who emerged as the favorite to win the Cy Young Award with a National League-leading 1.73 ERA. Fried’s performance could set the tone for a series in which the Braves have rookie starters with no postseason experience lined up to pitch the next two games: Ian Anderson in Game 2 and Kyle Wright in Game 3 (if necessary).

At least Fried has the eight postseason relief appearances -- four against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2018 and four against St. Louis in 2019 -- to draw upon.

“I think they’ll be extremely beneficial,” Snitker said, “and I think the past two years of (regular-season) starts and the success he’s had will be beneficial. He has felt the postseason. He’s been in it, prepared for it, and I think that’ll serve him well.”

Fried’s career postseason ERA of 7.11 is misleading; he held the opponent hitless in five of the eight relief appearances and scoreless in six of the eight.

After going 17-6 with a 4.02 ERA in the 2019 regular season, Fried further established himself this year as a top-of-the-rotation starter.

“I think it’s just (having) more experience, being able to use past experiences to help in-game scenarios,” he said. “I think with more experience I’m able to go out there and play, instead of trying to worry about what’s going to happen next or anything to that extent.

"I’m feeling more comfortable and also just simplifying my mental process of going out there competing and winning games, not really worrying about stats or anything. Playoff baseball is a perfect time to do that.”