Max Fried persisted through rain to deliver one of the best productions of his career.
The lefty made his case to stay in the Braves’ congested rotation, delivering 5-2/3 perfect innings against the postseason-caliber Cubs, resulting in a 9-4 win and sweep of the North Siders.
Fried’s command was exemplary. He painted the corners, maintaining a mid-to-high 90s fastball while startling with his usual back-breaking off-speed. He induced 11 groundouts and struck out five. In total, he tossed six frames, his heaviest workload since mid-March.
“He was dialed in,” catcher Brian McCann said. “Even the bullpen he threw before the game, I thought if he brings that to the game, it’s going to be special. He’s ready for this. He’s got great stuff. He’s got great poise. I thought tonight he threw the ball as good as you can possibly throw it.
“We could’ve done whatever we wanted tonight. That’s how good he was.”
Mark Zagunis tarnished Fried’s perfect night with two down in the sixth. He hit a 73-mph curveball to center, just out of Ender Inciarte’s reach. Fried wheedled a grounder from Albert Almora to wrap up the inning and his night.
Fried realized he had a perfect game going, but he tried to keep it in the back of his mind. Even had he retained it, manager Brian Snitker would’ve lifted him after the sixth. Fried finished at 88 pitches (60 strikes).
“Max threw one of the best games I’ve seen him throw, and against a really good lineup,” said outfielder Nick Markakis, who went 5-for-5 with three doubles and five RBIs. “So that was the highlight of the night for me.”
Stalled by blister-ridden circumstances, Fried hasn’t yet established himself among the organization’s troupe of arms. His dominant spring, along with minor injuries to two starters, put him in the team’s opening rotation.
He’s shown the flashes, but consistency has eluded him for a multitude of reasons, including bad luck.
“He looks like a young Cole Hamels,” McCann said. “When I was coming up and you saw Cole on the mound, (Fried) has the same build, same sort of look, and the stuff is off the charts.”
The Braves have yo-yoed Fried between Triple-A and the majors, between the rotation and bullpen. The California native admits his time in the bullpen was greatly beneficial because it liberated him. His velocity played up. He challenged opponents to hit his offerings.
“I’m not going to lie, me going to the bullpen was something that helped me a lot with my mentality,” he said. “It helped me go after guys. I just said, ‘Here’s my stuff. Hit it if you can.’ I’m going to go after you. I’m going to do everything I can. And I’ve tried to adapt that and put that in my starting routine too.”
Fried is 3-3 with a 2.54 ERA in 10 career starts (46 innings). He’s warranted a 3.80 ERA in 16 relief outings.
Thursday’s mastery certainly merits an extended look. Fried broke into the bigs in 2017, before many of these applauded pitching prospects, and it’s time the Braves figure out how he fits the long-term puzzle. The fact he had such an auspicious spring and is fully healthy sets him up for the most pivotal season of his young career.
The latest part of that process was as encouraging as any before it. Fried’s next start, which is pegged for Denver, presents a unique roadblock to an encore. If he pitches the Rockies similarly to the Cubs, the altitude won’t matter.
“When he has his stuff going, and the command is good, the ability to spin the ball, change speeds, it’s what you envision out of him,” Snitker said. “It’s what he’s capable of. All the strikes he was throwing, it’s a huge uptick from the past here. Just another step in the right direction in his maturation as a pitcher.”
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