ST. LOUIS -- Before the National League Division Series began, the Braves’ tentative plan was to have Max Fried start a potential Game 4. They knew he’d be available out of the bullpen before then, but he earned a chance to be in their postseason rotation by making 30 starts during the regular season.
Now, nobody will be surprised if Fried is closing games later this month. That’s how important and dominant the lanky left-hander is in Atlanta’s bullpen heading into Sunday’s Game 3 at Busch Stadium.
“A 6-5 lefty that throws 96-97 [mph] with that hook and that slider? I mean, I’ll take it,” catcher Brian McCann said. “You can’t say enough about him, what he did this year and the role he’s taken on right now. He’s got such a bright future.”
The 25-year-old Fried, who finished second in the National League with 17 wins this season, has transformed into the Braves’ secret weapon in relief.
Before his club’s workout on Saturday, manager Brian Snitker wouldn’t rule out the possibility of using Fried in the ninth inning at some point in the playoffs. Even if he’s not the closer, Fried could become something just as valuable: the Braves’ equivalent of Andrew Miller in the 2016 postseason or Josh Hader last October.
“He’s shown a propensity to do that,” Snitker said. “He's been very good. He was last year when we brought him out of the ‘pen, so it might be to our benefit that he fits that role.”
Right-hander Chris Martin's injury during Game 1 forced the Braves’ hand in one regard, as they needed someone to step up and replace one of their only reliable late-inning arms. But Fried’s performance at SunTrust Park in Games 1 and 2 showed that he might impact this series more by pitching in multiple high-leverage situations than simply starting one game.
“To me, it's as good as it gets. Nobody throws that hard with that curveball on command like he can,” Game 3 starter Mike Soroka said. “It's just really fun to watch him go out there and know that he's going to dominate. And he's been huge for us, and I know he's looking forward to helping out in whatever capacity that will be.”
Fried entered the seventh inning of Game 1 with a two-run lead, came back from being down 3-0 in the count and struck out José Martínez with a high 95.8 mph fastball. He caught Dexter Fowler looking at a slider on the black. Then he threw a first-pitch, 97 mph fastball to get Tommy Edman to ground out.
“One of the best arms I’ve ever seen in my life. Unbelievable,” said Francisco Cervelli, who caught Fried in Game 1. “As a lefty, it’s crazy. It’s just top of the league.”
Fried was just as dominant in Game 2 on Friday. Paul DeJong went down flailing at a 76.5 mph curveball. Harrison Bader swung and missed on a big breaking curve. After Martínez reached on a single to right field and Fowler lined out to center, Fried stalked off the mound with the Braves’ 3-0 lead intact.
“One of these days,” longtime friend and high school teammate Jack Flaherty said, “I’m sure he’ll give up a run.”
“Big [courage] right there by Max,” closer Mark Melancon said. “That’s not his role, then he comes out like he’s done it his whole life.”
And indeed, Fried reiterated on Saturday, he is comfortable doing whatever he’s asked to do during this series. He’ll start. He’ll set up for Melancon. He’ll close games. He’ll pitch the first four innings or the last two. He has no preference. Whatever it takes.
“At the end of the day, it's all about getting outs,” Fried said. “So whenever Snit asks me to take the ball, I'm going to take the ball and throw it.”
The reserved Southern California native seems to find another gear when the bullpen door swings open in October.
Three years into his Major League career, Fried’s average fastball velocity is 93.5 mph as a starter and 93.7 mph as a reliever in the regular season. This series, his fastball has clocked in at an average of 96.2 mph, which would have been the sixth-highest mark among lefty relievers this season.
The spin rate on his curveball is already elite, ranking in the 92nd percentile among all Major League pitchers this season. According to Statcast, only Trevor Bauer, Dylan Cease and Seth Lugo throw curveballs with more vertical movement. In this series, he has also thrown his slider about 2 mph harder than usual.
Fried said he tries to approach his relief appearances with the same mentality as when he starts, but he acknowledged it’s easier to “kind of empty the tank” in a shorter outing. He has found a way to use the late-inning, postseason adrenaline to his advantage rather than letting it overwhelm him.
Right now, Fried's the one overwhelming hitters.
“It's being able to use it in a positive way and not using it and becoming reckless or out of control,” Fried said. “I've had a lot of really good conversations with Nick [Markakis] about the person with the lowest heartbeat is going to come out on top, so just trying to stay calm in big situations and use it in the most positive way you can.”