Max Fried ended his breakthrough 2019 season with an unceremonious relief appearance in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, in which his high school buddy, Jack Flaherty, helped the Cardinals advance past the Braves.
As Fried spent the past few months working out with Flaherty, St. Louis’ ace, he gained confidence in his own ability to establish himself among the game’s elite starters. The Braves lefty took another step toward that status as he posted zeroes through the first six innings of a 2-1 win over the Rays on Thursday night at Truist Park.
“Every night he goes out there, I feel like there’s a potential for him to throw eight or nine [scoreless] innings,” Braves closer Mark Melancon said. “He’s had his ups and downs. … The last couple of years, he’s been the guy you count on in big situations. It’s been fun to watch him mature.”
Fried has frequently been a part of some special groups. Before he was taken by the Padres with the seventh overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft, his teammates at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles included Flaherty and White Sox All-Star pitcher Lucas Giolito.
Now, the 26-year-old Fried finds himself fronting a rotation with Mike Soroka, who produced the NL’s third-best ERA during last year’s stellar rookie season. These two young hurlers will significantly impact the Braves, who have uncertainty at each of the rotation’s other three spots.
“[Max] quietly had some kind of year last year,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “There was a lot of attention given to Mike [Soroka], but when you go back and look at Max’s year, it was pretty special, too. That’s a pretty good feeling for an organization to have two young guys of that caliber.”
Against the Rays, Fried retired the first 14 batters he faced, recorded seven strikeouts and allowed just three hits over 6 2/3 innings. The lone run charged to his line was scored by Willy Adames, who hit a double with two outs in the seventh and raced home on Ji-Man Choi’s single off Luke Jackson.
“He’s just growing as a pitcher,” Snitker said. “It was efficient. His stuff was good. You could tell he was really locked in and pretty focused. It was pretty fun to sit and watch him.”
Fried needed just 38 pitches to complete the first four innings in perfect fashion, and he kept the Rays off the bases until Mike Brosseau knocked a single up the middle with two outs in the fifth. The Atlanta southpaw promptly retired Brosseau with a quick pickoff at first base.
Of the 14 balls the Rays put in play against Fried, just three had an exit velocity above 95 mph, which is the benchmark for a hard-hit ball per Statcast.
“He was aggressive,” Adames said. “He was throwing a lot of strikes. We just let him get that confidence. He was mixing pitches really well. I thought his offspeed was amazing today and his pitch count was not a big thing for him. He had a pretty good game, and we couldn’t attack him and try to take him out of the game early.”
Fried has allowed three earned runs through his first 11 innings (two starts) this year, and opponents have hit just .132 (5-for-38) against him. He led all NL left-handers with 17 wins last year, but he stumbled down the stretch of his first full season and was moved to the bullpen for the postseason.
After making strong relief appearances in Games 1 and 2, he was unexpectedly called upon after the Cardinals had chased Mike Foltynewicz in the 10-run first that decided Game 5.
Nearly 10 months after seeing Flaherty shine for the Cardinals in that clincher, Fried is determined to produce a much more memorable conclusion to this season.
“I think any time you end the season with a bad taste in your mouth, it gives you a little extra motivation,” Fried said. “The last couple of offseasons have been about working and refining my delivery. I’m always eager to learn and eager to get better.”