Rotation shows reasons for optimism as Braves take series in Minnesota

If the past two games are the new norm for Braves pitchers, consider the rotation concerns quelled.

Max Fried pitched one of his sharpest starts of the season against a menacing Twins lineup in the Braves’ 11-7 win Wednesday afternoon. After losing the first game on a walk-off homer, the Braves dismantled the Twins over the next two games to take the series in Minnesota.

“That lineup is extremely powerful,” Fried said. “You can see they can put up a lot of runs real quick. I knew I just needed to focus on executing my pitches, putting them in good spots.”

The offense scored 23 runs in the final two games. On Wednesday, Ozzie Albies homered twice. Freddie Freeman homered for the third consecutive day, bringing home his 91st run to tie him for MLB’s lead. Ronald Acuna launched his 29th long ball, drawing closer in his pursuit of 30 homers and 30 steals.

While the rotation and bullpen took turns sorting themselves out, the bats have remained potent. The past two games, in an American League park against the best home-run hitters in baseball, the Braves outpaced the opposition.

“That’s a tough ballclub,” manager Brian Snitker said. “We had an eight-run lead, and you don’t feel good. They’re relentless. That’s a really good ballclub right there, really good. But I love how our guys responded after that first day.”

The offense made life easier on the pitchers. Fried, like Mike Foltynewicz before him, pitched better than the final line: 5-1/3 innings, six hits, three runs, one walk and 10 strikeouts. Luke Jackson allowed two stranded runners to score after Fried departed in the sixth.

The 25-year-old lefty assembled one of his better starts this year. He was perfect through three, fanning seven. The first time he ran into trouble – a double and walk in the fourth – he responded by striking out Eddie Rosario and coaxing a hard-hit lineout from slugger Miguel Sano, who supplied Monday’s walk-off.

“He was executing both sides of the plate pretty well, and that’s usually a good weapon for him with his two breaking balls that he had a decent feel for today,” catcher Tyler Flowers said. “That makes him pretty tough. When he commands his fastball and he’s got one of his breaking balls working, that is the kind of thing he can do.”

After a single and double in the fifth, Fried again settled down. He struck out Jonathan Schoop on three pitches and induced a flyout by Mitch Garver. He allowed three singles in the sixth, the last of which – and RBI single by Sano – concluded his afternoon.

Fried’s command was precise. His fastball averaged 94 mph, and his curveball and slider were an effective mix. He generated 12 swing-and-misses on 94 pitches, half of which were created with his fastball.

“My fastball location was really good,” Fried said. “My curveball was in pretty good spots most of the day. My slider was in and out, but I feel like the fastball command was good enough today to get me by.”

Fried has won his past four starts dating to July 15, an outing he left early because of a blister. In that time, Fried owns a 3.32 ERA with a 25:6 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

The Braves’ ceiling will be determined by their starting pitching. Foltynewicz pitched much like his old self Tuesday, and paired with Fried’s outing, there should be optimism as to how this group forms behind Mike Soroka, Dallas Keuchel and yes, Julio Teheran.

Credit: Jim Mone

Credit: Jim Mone

Foltynewicz and Fried could swing how the team is viewed in October. Fried has persisted through ups and downs, including that pesky blister issue resurfacing, while logging a new career high in innings. For him, the questions revolve around his health and how he handles his unprecedented workload.

It’s too early to speculate how the Braves may align their rotation for the postseason, but faith in Fried and Foltynewicz certainly provides more options than the Braves thought they had in June. If at their best, those two can turn the rotation into a legitimate strength.

“I think (the last two nights) show the preparation and where those two guys are at,” said utilityman Charlie Culberson, who had four hits Wednesday. “They’re focused. They’re really good arms. Great stuff, and they executed really well. It’s just a plus for them and for the team.”

Next up, the Braves play four in Miami, an opportunity to round out a successful road trip by defeating a team the Braves have had few problems with this season (and last, among others).