CHICAGO – Wrigley Field will be packed as usual for a Sunday afternoon game with fans eager to see their defending World Series champions dispose of the Braves and another rookie starting pitcher – this one making his first major league start -- so they can hold their beers high and sing their “Go, Cubs, Go” theme song after another win.
But that rookie pitcher, Max Fried, doesn’t figure to be intimidated by the surroundings, whether the wind is blowing in or out at Wrigley. He’s baby-faced and slender, but Fried is anything but timid when the left-hander gets on the mound and starts slinging his big curveball and mid-90s fastball at hitters.
“It’s going to be a really fun time,” he said Saturday, a day after he was recalled from Triple-A Gwinnett and being told it was official: He would make his first major league start Sunday in a series finale against the Cubs, after making four relief appearances in August during his first major-league stint.
He was in uniform at Wrigley for the second and third games of the four-game series Friday and Saturday, not the first time he’d been to the Friendly Confines, but the first time he’d taken it in from the perspective of an opposing player.
“I’d been up here in high school, I’ve been to Wrigley – never in the dugout during a game obviously,” said Fried, who came to the famous ballpark for a pre-draft workout in 2012, when the native Californian was the top lefty pitching prospect in the nation. “It’s going to be a really great day. I’m really excited to get out there.”
The Cubs selected sixth in that 2012 draft and took outfielder Albert Almora Jr., one spot before Fried was selected by the Padres.
Either Fried was repeating the “fun” thing to convince himself it was so, or he really does believe that making his first MLB start in one of the more energized atmospheres in baseball against one of its hottest teams will be a pleasurable experience. Those who’ve spent much time around him would tell you it’s not an act, he really does enjoy and thrive on such challenges.
“Yeah, he’s a California kid at heart. You know, pretty laid back,” said Dan Meyer, who developed a bond with the pitcher, first when Fried was recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery during the 2015 season when Meyer was the Braves pitching-rehab coordinator and continuing when Meyer became pitching coach at low Single-A Rome in 2016 and Fried emerged as a budding star in a stable of elite staring-pitching prospects on that Rome team.
“He’s just got that style, that California style. But you get him on the mound and you see a different kid. You know that switch is going to flip,” Meyer said.
Fried was rated the No. 53 prospect in Baseball America’s Top 100 in 2014 before blowing out his elbow 37 starts into his minor league career. He was traded to the Braves early in the surgery-rehab process in December 2014, along with Dustin Peterson and Jace Peterson, in exchange for Justin Upton.
After missing the entire 2015 season while rehabbing, Friend was 8-7 with a 3.93 ERA at Rome in 2016, with 112 strikeouts in 103 innings of 21 regular-season games. The numbers didn’t jump off the page, but in his last 11 games he had a 2.80 ERA with 72 strikeouts and 19 walks in 54 2/3 innings. And in his last four starts that year -- two regular-season starts, two postseason – he had 44 strikeouts and seven walks in 25 1/3 innings.
After struggling with command and and posting 5.85 ERA in his first seven starts in 2016, Fried went on a tear, carving a 1.98 ERA in his next 10 starts, with 56 strikeouts in 50 innings. But he left a July 15 start after two innings because of a recurring finger blister and didn’t pitch again until Aug. 14.
Flash ahead to this season, when Fried struggled to such a degree at Double-A Mississippi, with a 2-11 record and 6.33 ERA in 19 starts, that some outsider observers wondered if he might’ve been overrated. Turns out, blisters were an underlying issue again.
But Fried, frustrated over being betrayed again by the skin of his left index finger, tried to pitch through the discomfort.
“It started coming up, like, the middle of May,” he said. “It wasn’t terrible, something that I thought I could pitch through. Looking back, I probably should have just nipped it in the bud. But me being stubborn, I wanted to get out there and pitch. It may have been a detriment to myself. It’s all a learning experience. I know now what I can and can’t pitch through.”
Pitching in the majors this season had been a goal and many believed he would be up by midseason, but that was before the blisters and six-plus ERA in Double-A.
“If you would have talked to me in May or June, when everything was going on, I probably would have told you you’re crazy if (you thought) this was going to happen,” Fried said. “But I’m really happy and excited to be here and really just can’t wait to get this start in.”
This summer he didn’t have just a blister on his index finger, Fried also developed one on the middle finger. He struggled to pitch as many as six innings for several weeks, gave up five runs in two-thirds of an inning in a June 23 start, and lasted 2 1/3 innings in a June 29 start before the decision was made to shut him down, let his fingers heal completely and figure out if there was anything they hadn’t tried that might help control the situation.
“I’m not really sure if (the second blister was from) trying to compensate, or if it just happened to be a different finger,” said Fried, who kept his arm in shape during the down time by doing relatively light throwing with his fingers wrapped. “But it was one of those things, once I started to focus on keeping my hand dry and avoiding it from getting too wet, things got a lot better.”
Fried and the Braves figured out that his using the rosin bag that’s on every pitcher’s mound – pitchers use it to keep their hands dry -- was problematic for him, because the sticky substance made his fingers overly dry. Instead, he started making sure that his fingers stayed dry enough to avoid going to the rosin bag. And since returning to the mound.
Friend gave up 19 earned runs in 14 1/3 innings of his last four Double-A starts before going on the disabled list. Since returning to the mound July 21 he has given up no runs – earned or otherwise – in 16 innings over five minor league starts, including Wednesday at Gwinnett when he was pulled after two perfect innings because the Braves knew they would need him for Sunday’s start because of a Wednesday doubleheader in Philadelphia.
Rather than have R.A. Dickey or Julio Teheran pitch on short rest Sunday, the Braves will turn to Fried, who has waited a long time for this moment. He was asked if he viewed this as something of a tryout for next season, since Fried likely will compete for a rotation spot in spring training.
“I’m not really looking too far ahead to that,” he said. “It’s just more of one start at a time. That (next season’s rotation decisions) is something that I can’t control, I’ve just got to go out there and be myself, perform the way that I want to perform. Go out there tomorrow and just to have fun.”
Go have some fun, kid.
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