Thrust into Gwinnett rotation, Max Fried sets sights on new challenges

Atlanta Braves pitcher Max Fried delivers during the fifth inning of a baseball spring exhibition game against the New York Yankees, Friday, March 2, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
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Atlanta Braves pitcher Max Fried delivers during the fifth inning of a baseball spring exhibition game against the New York Yankees, Friday, March 2, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Credit: Lynne Sladky

Credit: Lynne Sladky

Max Fried’s first Triple-A start of the season was a noteworthy step as he builds toward consistently handling a heavier workload.

Fried, 24, pitched 5-2/3 innings, allowing five hits and one run in Gwinnett’s 6-4 11-inning loss to Rochester on Friday. He struck out six and walked two in his longest outing since June 17 with Double-A Mississippi.

The California-born lefty suddenly was promoted to Triple-A upon Aaron Blair's shoulder injury sustained Wednesday. Blair will visit Dr. James Andrews and likely will miss significant time.

A day after flying in, Fried produced one of his better minor league starts in the past calendar year.

After allowing three consecutive hits to start the second inning, Fried struck out two and got an easy grounder to limit the damage to one run. He surrendered two hits for the remainder of the night.

“I felt like I was really locked in at that point,” Fried said. “I just wanted to try to keep it going. Was really good in the third and fourth. The fifth I got out of myself, just tried to compete as much as I could. I’m really happy with my outing.”

Fried threw 86 pitches (55 strikes). It was the most pitches he’d thrown since that same June game. He exceeded 80 just once in the majors, throwing 83 in 4 1/3 innings against the Marlins in his last appearance of the season.

“I got a little tired at the end,” Fried said of his Friday start. “I’m not too worried about it. It’s still early in the year, and I’m still building up to pitch innings. … Just focusing on that and try to get better, focus a little bit more on staying within myself later in the games. I felt like I was trying to do a little too much at times. But beyond that, my main goal coming into (Friday) was just trying to compete and keep us in the game.”

Fried unexpectedly jumped from Double-A to the major-league bullpen last Aug. 5. He pitched in nine games, making four starts and earning a 3.81 ERA with 22 strikeouts and 12 walks in 26 innings.

“It was invaluable,” he said. “I went up there and I felt like I could compete. There’s always that ‘What if?’ You never know until you experience it. I felt like when I was up there I belonged. It helped my confidence. This is something I can do and really succeed at.”

While among the Braves’ plethora of back-end rotation options, Fried didn’t get an extended look at major league camp. He pitched in four games, allowing five runs and striking out six in 6 2/3 innings.

The Braves informed Fried early in spring training there was a possibility he would start in Double-A. He was sent to minor league camp March 16 to get stretched out.

“Let’s take on this challenge,” he recalled thinking at the time. “It was good for me because I wanted to prove I could pitch at that level. I struggled obviously (in Mississippi last year), so going back there was kind of redemption for me.”

Fried’s presence on the 40-man roster essentially rendered which minor-league level he started at irrelevant, especially given the system’s depth. He knew going to Double-A wasn’t an indictment on his progress compared with colleagues of similar stature.

“Max had a solid spring,” Stripers manager Damon Berryhill said. “When he came up here (Triple-A), he pitched really well for us last year. He went up to the big leagues, pitched great up there. Had a really good fall (league). He’s been really solid so far, so we expect him to go out and have a good ball game.”

After a tumultuous start to his 2017 season because of a blister and inconsistent production, the Braves found Fried’s formula for success.

In his five starts before his call-up, Fried hadn’t exceeded four innings. It resulted in a three-game scoreless streak (10 innings) in which he threw no more than 65 pitches. He went 4-2/3 innings in his lone Double-A start in 2018.

Fried’s deepest major-league outing went 5-1/3 innings against the Mets on Sept. 25. The team hasn’t wavered on its commitment to Fried as a starter, so the logical step is to begin stretching his outings.

“I think we took him right to 80 pitches tonight,” Berryhill said. “That was the goal, to get him to 80 and the next time out try to get him to 90, maybe 95 and get him stretched out.”

Another crack at the majors is coming soon. Fried’s outlook isn’t to worry with past Double-A struggles or a lackluster spring training. He intends to reward the Braves for their patience and trust in proving he’s a pivotal piece of their future.

“It’s not about how you start,” Fried said. “It’s about how you progress.”

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