Max Fried’s injury is bummer for Braves on ‘fun’ opening day

Braves starting pitcher Max Fried, left, walks off the field during the fourth inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, Thursday, March 30, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Braves starting pitcher Max Fried, left, walks off the field during the fourth inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, Thursday, March 30, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON — The Braves initially said Max Fried left Thursday’s game because of “discomfort” in his left hamstring. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but it didn’t sound too bad.

Then after the game, manager Brian Snitker said Fried suffered a strain and “more than likely” would go on the injured list. That was a bummer for the Braves on an otherwise upbeat opening day.

The season barely has started, and already the Braves will have their pitching depth tested. They passed in the short term. Five relievers followed Fried, who left with one out in the fourth, and held Washington to one run the rest of the way. The Braves began their quest for the 2023 World Series with a 7-2 victory over the hapless Nationals.

Fried’s injury will be trickier for the Braves to overcome in the long term. He’s the staff ace and was showing it before the injury. Fried’s hamstring “kind of grabbed me” when he pivoted to cover first base on Dominic Smith’s ground ball. He made the play, but had to leave the game.

“It was nothing crazy,” Fried said. “I don’t think it’s nothing bad.”

If the Braves end up placing Fried on the 15-day injured list, he would miss at least two starts.

“You don’t want to see it happen, but if it’s going to, I’d rather earlier than later, that’s for sure,” Snitker said. “We’ll just make sure we get him right.”

With Fried out, that leaves Spencer Strider as the one sure thing in the rotation. Strider hasn’t pitched a full season in the majors, but he was a strikeout machine last year. The Braves’ starting pitching gets shakier after that.

Kyle Wright is in Florida building up innings after a sore shoulder set him back in spring training. He won’t be eligible to return from the injured list in time to sub for Fried’s next two scheduled turns. Charlie Morton, 39, is coming off a down season. Jared Shuster and Dylan Dodd will be making their MLB debuts when take their turns in the rotation over the next few days.

The top options on the farm are Ian Anderson and Bryce Elder. Anderson has the longer track record of success, but has yet to sort himself out after poor results in 2022 and during spring training this year. Elder posted a 3.13 ERA over 10 games (nine starts) as a rookie, but was roughed up in the spring.

I’m guessing the Braves will get by if Fried is out for an extended period. The team always seems to have more pitching in reserve, even when it seems like they don’t. Strider, for example, wasn’t even on the radar before becoming the team’s second-best starter in 2022. The Braves usually figure out a way to get effective pitching when they need it most.

In the meantime, the Braves may have to lean heavily on their bullpen. It’s a very good group, even with closer Raisel Iglesias on the shelf with a strained shoulder. The Braves went deep into the ‘pen against the Nationals and did what they should do against a light-hitting lineup.

After Fried left the game, the Braves covered the next nine outs with pitchers Lucas Luetge, Jesse Chavez, Dylan Lee. All of them complied a 3.07 ERA or better in 2022. None of them ranks among the Braves’ top four relievers in 2023. The trio held the Nationals to a run on four hits and a walk.

Set-up man Collin McHugh inherited a runner from Lee with one out in the seventh. He needed only six pitches to retire Lane Thomas and Joey Meneses. McHugh walked the first two batters in the eighth but gout of the jam. A.J. Minter walked the leadoff batter in the ninth before sitting down the next three batters.

“Those guys did a great job handing the ball off to each other,” Snitker said of his relievers. “We’ve got a lot of other guys down there that we’ve got a lot of confidence in, too.”

It was a good win for the Braves under the circumstances. It won’t be as easy for them on most days. The Braves are vying to win a fifth consecutive division championship. The Nats are pointed for a fourth consecutive last-place finish in the National League East. Opponents such as Washington make you appreciate the Braves’ depth.

It wasn’t too long ago that Patrick Corbin was a good pitcher on a stellar Nats staff. Corbin once followed Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer in the rotation. Those pitchers and sluggers Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon and Trae Turner carried the Nats to the 2019 World Series championship. Corbin and the Nats have sunk fast since then.

Corbin got the ball on opening day because Strasburg is on the injured list. But Strasburg has been bad since 2019, too. Soto, Rendon and Turner play elsewhere now. No wonder Nationals Park was maybe 70% full for what’s supposed to be the most optimistic day of the season.

The home fans saw their team fall behind 3-0 in the second inning. Corbin allowed three consecutive singles and walked Austin Riley with the bases loaded. Two of those runs were unearned because Roswell’s CJ Abrams, one of the young players who gives Washington hope, botched a ground ball.

Fried gave one run of that lead back in the bottom of the second. It wasn’t his fault. Smith led off with a pop fly to shortstop Orlando Arcia, who lost the ball in the sun. Alex Call’s sacrifice fly scored Smith. Fried retired six of the next seven batters before his hamstring flared up.

The bullpen had Fried’s back. Travis d’Arnaud’s two-run double in the ninth essentially put the Nats away.

“That’s big for us to get 12 hits and put up seven runs,” d’Arnaud said. “It was a fun day.”

Fried’s injury didn’t ruin the good times because the Braves have so many quality arms. We’ll see how deep the organizational pitching goes if Fried is out for a while.