Fried's scoreless streak continues as season approaches
Left-hander goes 6 1/3 innings vs. Twins with one hit allowed
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Had Sunday been Opening Day, Max Fried would likely have been celebrating an outstanding performance in a Braves victory.
Sunday, however, was a Grapefruit League game, so even after tossing 6 1/3 innings with one hit allowed in Atlanta's 5-0 win over the Twins, Fried was more focused on the things he wants to improve upon.
“I’m trying to look at things more process-oriented rather than results-oriented,” Fried said, mentioning a four-pitch walk and a couple of 3-0 counts that bothered him. “I feel like every outing, there are certain things that I want to build on or get better at, and I felt like I've been able to do that so far. Fortunately for me, the results have been good to be able to back that.”
Good might be an understatement. The Braves' ace has now thrown 11 1/3 scoreless innings over three Grapefruit League starts, plus four innings of scoreless ball against Puerto Rico in a World Baseball Classic exhibition. That’s 15 1/3 scoreless innings for the left-hander, who has struck out 19 batters in that stretch.
“It’s just kind of what you’ve come to expect out of him,” manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s elevated himself to one of the elite pitchers in the game. He never stops. He's never satisfied. He's always looking to get better. He's always working. That’s just going to continue to make him great for a long time.”
Fried is the odds-on favorite to start for the Braves on Opening Day, which would mark his third straight year with that plum assignment. Snitker hasn’t made it official, and while Fried tried to downplay it -- “I'm just going to go out there and take the ball whenever they tell me, and I'm going to go pitch,” he said -- the 29-year-old also said it “would be a great honor” to open the season.
“I was fortunate enough to start Opening Day for the last couple of years,” Fried said. “The first time, it was definitely emotional, and I had a lot of those feelings. Every time you take that first start of the season, you have those feelings no matter what, whether it's the first game of the fifth game. You get those butterflies again, because baseball is back.”
Although Fried took the mound Sunday with 14 strikeouts in nine innings overall this spring -- a healthy rate that is far beyond the 8.8 K/9 innings rate that he’s posted over his first six seasons in the Majors – he has made his living by keeping the ball on the ground, evidenced by his career 53.7% ground-ball rate.
Last season, Fried’s ground-ball rate checked in at a career-low 51.2%, though that still ranked as the seventh best in the Majors.
In the early innings Sunday, Fried looked like his old self, getting five of the first six batters on grounders.
Kyle Garlick’s leadoff single in the fifth proved to be the only hit for the Twins against Fried, who quickly wiped the runner out with a nifty 3-6-1 double play, as Fried showed some good footwork around the bag to complete the play.
“The bag was big enough that I clipped it,” Fried said, referring to the new enlarged bases this season.
With only 56 pitches through five innings, Fried came back out for the sixth, though he needed only eight pitches to get through that inning. He was still short of his target pitch count of 70, so the Braves gave Fried an option to get his required pitches in: throw in the bullpen or go back out for the seventh.
That was an easy call for Fried, who faced two more hitters in the seventh before Snitker emerged from the dugout to take the ball.
“When you're getting ground balls, that's one of the things that allows him to go deeper in games, because he doesn't elevate the pitch count," Snitker said. “Everything was just so good.”
Fried has one more spring start prior to the regular season, though he seems comfortable with the pitch timer and the new rules put in place this season. In fact, he seems comfortable with just about everything right now.
“I feel like I've been able to throw all my pitches for strikes,” Fried said. “I have a hitter or two that things get lost and you try to dial that back in, but for the most part, I’ve been really happy with the pace and getting familiar with the new rules, just going out there and competing again.”