Spencer Strider, the ultimate competitor, will start Game 1 for Braves

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Spencer Strider throws a pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies during the first inning at Truist Park, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Spencer Strider throws a pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies during the first inning at Truist Park, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

In the state championship game in 2017, Christian Academy of Knoxville (Tenn.) pitcher Spencer Strider allowed two runs in the first inning. Then he punched back. He mowed down the opposing lineup the rest of the way.

After the sixth inning of a seven-inning high school game, Tommy Pharr wanted to pull Strider, who was around 100 pitches.

“Dude, you’ve got a career,” Pharr, the coach, told his right-hander. “I’m not gonna run you out there.”

“Nah, I’m going back out,” Strider responded. “I want to go back out.”

He did, and Christian Academy of Knoxville won the state title. After that two-run first inning, Strider only allowed three hits, while striking out 10, the rest of the way. And in the end, he provided another reminder of his competitiveness. He always wants the ball.

On Saturday, Strider will start Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Phillies at Truist Park. In front of a sold-out crowd, he will attempt to set the tone for a Braves team with realistic championship aspirations.

He is prepared for this.

“That’s what you play for,” Strider said Friday. “It’s what you work for, is opportunities in the postseason.”

“He’s ready,” catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “He’s done his homework. He’s faced these guys enough over the last couple of years to kind of understand what he needs to do to get ready. We’re all confident in him that he’s gonna be ready to go (Saturday).”

“I think he’s very much ready, especially because he experienced it last year,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “And it was a tough situation for him. So I think he’s probably really excited to have this opportunity tomorrow when he’s healthy and well rested and prepared.”

The “tough situation” Snitker is referring to is this: Last October, Strider made his postseason debut after a layoff due to an oblique injury. He couldn’t have been at his best. He allowed five runs over 2 1/3 innings.

This time, Strider is healthy. He’s facing a team he’s dominated. In eight career regular-season games versus the Phillies (seven starts), he has a 1.90 ERA over 47 1/3 innings, with 72 strikeouts. He’s also armed with the experience of last postseason.

“It’s a very energetic environment,” Strider said. “So things happen quickly, the ability to slow the game down and focus on what you need to do to be successful and try not to let the environment dictate your thought process or your approach. We have played a lot of games. We have had some success this year. So I think everybody’s very confident in their routines and their preparation. And I think you want to let the adrenaline and the energy of the postseason sort of aid in that process rather than trying to avoid it.”

Atlanta Braves' Spencer Strider sits in the dugout during the fifth inning of the team's baseball game against the San Francisco Giants in San Francisco, Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Nic Coury)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Max Fried will start Game 2. First, Strider will throw the series’ first pitches.

This will be the latest step in Strider’s impressive journey to this point. Years ago, he entered Pharr’s program as a freshman. Pharr immediately knew Strider was mature for his age.

“I used to tell him he was an old man in a young man’s body,” Pharr said. “He was always like that – always very focused on what he was doing.”

In high school, Strider touched 90 mph. He was the team’s ace. But he wasn’t as electric as he is now. At Clemson, he continued developing. He took more steps after the Braves drafted him.

Through it all, his competitiveness defined him.

One way you can see it: Strider is hard on himself. He has high standards for anything he does.

“I used to tell him that was his biggest flaw, that he would beat himself up so hard sometimes,” Pharr said. “I’m like, ‘Dude, you just gotta relax.’ He’d be like, ‘Ah, this sucks.’”

Yeah, this is Strider.

In the middle of a bullpen session, he might throw a bad pitch and would say, “My breaking ball sucks. It’s terrible.” To this, Pharr would tell the young pitcher, “It doesn’t do any good to say that. Hey, it’s gonna get better. Your stuff is good.”

“He’s always been uber competitive ever since I’ve known him. He’s always been very hard on himself – early on when he was younger, I think probably to his detriment,” Pharr said. “But I think he finally learned how to channel that a little bit. It’s probably better to be that way than to let yourself off the hook all the time.”

In the regular season, Strider had a 3.86 ERA over 32 starts. He set the Braves record for strikeouts in a season, with 281. He’s a unicorn pitcher. There aren’t many, if any, like him.

Pharr always knew Strider would be an excellent collegiate pitcher. But this? One of MLB’s best arms? There’s no way Pharr could’ve even predicted this. That’s nothing against Strider – Pharr just doesn’t think there’s any definitive way to say with certainty that someone will play professional baseball at a high level.

But Strider wasn’t like others his age. “He was atypical from a lot of high school kids in the fact that he was kind of a throwback,” Pharr said. “He kept up with baseball.” Strider grew up a Cleveland Indians fan. Whereas other high schoolers could tell you about highlights, he would tell you details.

He kept up with it.

When he was younger, Strider modeled himself after Corey Kluber. In Cleveland’s run to the World Series in 2016, Kluber started six games, including Game 1 of the World Series. Strider, of course, followed that team.

And now, years later, Strider will start the first game of a journey the Braves hope ends with a trophy and confetti.

On the eve of Game 1, Pharr recalled how Strider, from the time he was in the ninth grade, always talked about wanting to be a big leaguer.

“Everybody talks about it, but very few people work like they want to do it,” Pharr said. “He wanted to be a big leaguer. I think he’s probably dreamed about being in that position and thought about it. He’s just a guy who prepares really hard, focuses real hard. His routine is his routine, and he’s gonna stay within that. I think he’s ready. I hope he is, and I feel like he is. Excited to see what happens.”

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