CHICAGO – Braves pitching prospect Max Fried waited a long time for his moment, his first major league start, and for much of the summer it looked like it might be delayed until next year due to something as innocuous as a blister.
But six weeks after returning from a stint on Double-A Mississippi’s disabled list, Fried was on the mound Sunday before a sellout crowd at Wrigley Field, facing the defending World Series champion Cubs, who were on a six-game winning streak and looking to complete a season sweep of the Braves.
The slender left-hander did his part to help the Braves end it, and so did Fried’s fellow rookie and former Southern California travel-ball teammate, Rio Ruiz.
Fried pitched five solid innings to earn his first major league decision and Ruiz had a career-high three RBIs in a 5-1 win, the first for the Braves over the Cubs in the seventh and final game between the teams.
“It was definitely really crazy,” Fried said of the atmosphere. “But we got the win, that was my goal coming into it. Came in and did what I wanted to do. I couldn’t be happier now.”
Matt Kemp had a first-inning sacrifice fly, Freddie Freeman doubled to start a two-run fourth inning and Ruiz had a two-run single in the ninth for the Braves, who finished a 2-5 road trip and avoided being swept in a four-game series by the Cubs. It would’ve been just their second winless season against the Cubs in the Braves’ Atlanta era.
Mixing in superb curveballs and occasional change-ups with 90-91 mph fastballs, Fried allowed four hits, one run and three walks with four strikeouts and threw 37 strikes in 62 pitches.
“Wrigley Field against the world champs, there’s a lot of energy out there, a lot of emotions, and I thought he handled himself really well,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “That (curveball) just keeps breaking. I know it’s hard to get a hold of, because it’s got a lot of bite and it just keeps breaking. It’s nice when a guy’s got a knack for that, because it’s a huge weapon for him.”
The early exit wasn’t unexpected, since Fried had not pitched more than four innings since June 17, when he went 5 1/3 innings and 98 pitches while giving up six runs against Double-A Montgomery.
That was when his finger-blister problem was worsening, growing from just one on his left index finger to another on his middle finger. After struggling while lasting just two-thirds of an inning and 2 1/3 innings in his next two starts, he went on the disabled list for three weeks while he and the Braves worked to get a handle on the issue.
The solution sounds simple in retrospect, but it’s worked: Fried, 23, now goes out of his way to make sure he keeps his pitching hand dry, so that he doesn’t have to go to the rosin bag that’s on every mound. The sticky substance was causing his fingers to become overly dry and creating friction and the resultant blisters.
He didn’t allow an earned run in three minor league starts after coming off the DL and got a call to the majors from the Braves, who wanted him to “get acclimated” to the big leagues and had Fried make four August relief appearances before sending him back, this time to Triple-A Gwinnett.
After pitching six scoreless innings of one-hit ball in two Triple-A games, the Braves called on Fried again, this time to start Sunday after a doubleheader last weekend in Philadelphia would’ve otherwise made it necessary to bring back R.A. Dickey or Julio Teheran on short rest.
Fried rose to the challenge Sunday, facing four or fewer batters in each of his first four innings and getting out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth. Unlike during Fried’s brief spring-training appearances and four relief appearances last month, Snitker on Sunday really had a chance to see why Fried is so highly regarded.
“Haven’t seen a whole lot of him, just heard about him, especially last year during that (Single-A) Rome stretch run,” Snitker said. “I know it’s low-A ball, but there were a lot of really good things that came out of that and how he handled that and went after it. Just the short looks we had (in his relief appearances), you didn’t know what to expect. And today you see what they were talking about.
“He was real efficient, made pitches when he had to and allowed himself to stay out there (for five innings) and get a win.”
Fried retired the first four batters and picked off Javier Baez after a one-out walk in the second inning. The only damage against the lefty was a two-out homer in the second inning from Ian Happ.
Fried recorded seven outs in the next eight batters and induced a double-play grounder from Anthony Rizzo after a Kris Bryant leadoff walk in the fourth inning.
But his most impressive inning was the fifth, when the Cubs loaded the bases on a leadoff single, a two-out walk to Jon Jay and a Ben Zobrist infield single that went off Fried’s glove to redirect it away from shortstop Dansby Swanson.
“I was really frustrated that I went and reached for that ball, tipped it, because it was going to be a routine ground ball for Dansby,” Fried said. “So I got a little frustrated, little angry and tried to just get out of it.”
With the crowd on its feet, Fried diffused the situation by getting Albert Almora to ground out to end the inning and preserve the 3-1 lead.
Four relievers — rookie A.J. Minter, Sam Freeman, Jose Ramirez, Arodys Vizcaino — threw an inning apiece and limited the Cubs to one hit and no walks with six strikeouts the rest of the way, with Minter and Ramirez each striking out two in a perfect inning.