Braves get great pitching to beat Reds at their game

Braves pitcher Max Fried gets a glove bump from catcher Travis d’Arnaud during the sixth inning in Game 1 of the National League wild card playoff series on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Braves beat the Reds on Freddie Freeman’s run-scoring single in the 13th inning. That sounds about right since Freeman is their best hitter. It was the only run of the game. That sounds inconceivable for the hitting-rich, pitching-poor Braves in general and for this game specifically.

The Braves got into a tight game with a premium on pitching and thrived in Game 1 of their NL wild-card series. Young Braves lefty Max Fried matched Trevor Bauer, Cincinnati’s Cy Young Award candidate. The Braves have the best collection of relivers in the majors, but even good bullpens don’t often cover six innings without surrendering a run.

It was hard to see this one coming.

“We flipped that narrative on them,” Freeman said, smiling (probably) from behind his COVID-19 mask.

Fried pitched seven scoreless innings with five strikeouts and no walks. Bauer didn’t allow a run over 7 2/3 innings with 12 strikeouts. Amir Garrett became the only one of the game’s 13 pitchers to give up a run when Freeman poked his 1-2 slider to center field to score Cristian Pache from third base.

The big-hitting Braves won because their eight pitchers didn’t allow a run.

“It was some kind of job by that bullpen and Max,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I don’t care who you are playing, you throw up 13 innings of zero that’s special. We faced some pretty good pitching ourselves. Those guys on the other side did a great job, also.”

Bauer struck out 12 of 27 batters faced over 7-2/3 innings with no walks. Reds relievers piled up nine more strikeouts. It’s hard to silence the Braves' bats, but the Reds did it.

There was a chance that would happen. There was uncertainty about whether the Braves could match it. Fried has been good all season. He saved the Braves once staff ace Mike Soroka went on the shelf. But Fried was making his first postseason start. He pitched only 11 innings in September because of injuries.

The pressure was on Fried to pitch long and strong game because he’s the only sure starter in the rotation. It looked as if his limited work over the past month might be a problem when the first two Reds batters reached base on hits.

“It happened quick,” Fried said. “You try to get the feel of the game, next thing you know runners in scoring position and no outs. I was just trying to get out of there with only one run.”

He escaped with no runs allowed. Joey Votto lined out. Eugenio Suarez followed with a hard line drive right at second baseman Ozzie Albies. Mike Moustakas grounded out to end the inning.

“Single, single and to get out of that, I think that really helped him out right there,” Freeman said. “I think that made him feel like he belongs.”

Fried didn’t have much trouble after the shaky start. Over the next six innings Cincinnati managed only four singles while striking out five times. After Nick Senzel’s one-out single in the third inning, Nick Castellanos flied out and Votto stuck out on a sharp slider with a full count. Those were two of eight consecutive outs by Fried.

The Reds helped Fried out with a couple of base-running blunders. Otherwise, the Reds made Fried earn it. While Bauer was confounding Braves hitters with a string of strikeouts, Fried was limiting the Reds to lots of weak contact.

“We knew Max was going to put up numbers right along Trevor today,” Freeman said.

Fried needed only 78 pitches to get through seven superb innings. His fastball was still touching 95 mph. Snitker asked him how he was feeling.

“I probably could have gone (longer), but I know we’ve got a lot of good guys in bullpen who’ve thrown unbelievable all year, and they continued to do it,” Fried said.

There was little drama for the first two Braves relievers. Chris Martin retired the Reds in order in the eighth inning. Snitker called on closer Mark Melancon in the ninth, and he also sat down the Reds one-two-three. Freeman walked to lead off the bottom of the ninth, but Raisel Iglesias struck out three consecutive hitters to force extra innings.

There ended up being a lot of them. Snitker went deep into his bullpen. Lefty Will Smith was perfect in the 10th and retired the first batter in the 11th before giving way to Darren O’Day. He struck out Shogo Akiyama but Castellanos doubled and, after Votto got a free pass, O’Day walked Suarez.

Snitker called on veteran Tyler Matzek, who caught on with the Braves after four years out of the majors. He struck out Moustakas on three pitches to end the inning. Matzek gave up back-to-back singles with no outs in the 12th inning before striking out Kyle Farmer, Tucker Barnhart and Freddy Galvis.

Shane Greene replaced Matzek for the 13th. He gave up one-out singles to Votto and Suarez. Snitker brought in lefty A.J. Minter, who was the Braves' closer in 2018 but struggled in 2019. Minter walked Moustakas before striking out Aristides Aquino and getting Jose Garcia to hit into a force out.

“The way our pitchers kept getting out of jams, it was a very stressful four-and-a-half hours,” Freeman said.

Freeman finally ended the anxiety with his game-winning RBI. But the Braves really won the game with pitching. They might need of it to win this series.

The Reds are set to start right-hander Luis Castillo in Game 2 on Wednesday. He’s been nearly as good as Bauer. The Braves will counter with Ian Anderson, who made his major league debut Aug. 26.

Castillo has never pitched in the postseason, but he has made 90 career starts. He was an All-Star in 2019 and was even better this season. If Castillo is in good form, then the Braves could use a longer outing from Anderson, who had two starts shorter than five innings in his past five.

“The Reds haven’t seen Ian Anderson yet, and he’s got a good fastball and change-up, too,” Freeman said.

Snitker said the seven relievers who pitched Game 1 will be available for Game 2. Matzek and O’Day didn’t pitch back-to-back days during the season. The other five pitchers were effective when they did it.

The Braves didn’t have their usual big bats in Game 1. They didn’t need them because Fried and the bullpen were so good.

“Our guys pitched their rears off,” Snitker said. “I’m proud of them. They all just did an unbelievable job.”

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