But then certain players got hurt, struggled or elected not to play because of the pandemic.
The Braves adjusted. They found another path to a third consecutive National League East title, leaning on an elite bullpen as well as Fried, Wright and rookie Ian Anderson down the stretch. Atlanta twirled 22 consecutive scoreless innings in the National League Wild Card Series against the Reds, two shy of tying the franchise’s postseason record of 24 set in 1991. It gives the Braves confidence that they can put up more zeroes against the Marlins in the NL Division Series, which begins Tuesday afternoon at Minute Maid Park.
“Losing your No. 1 [Soroka] the first couple weeks is really tough,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “For us to play how we did and bounce back and win another division title, seeing these young kids in Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright turn the corner -- it’s huge. Everyone in that clubhouse has the confidence going into this series, and hopefully beyond, that we’ve got a good chance to win this whole thing.”
Fried will pitch Game 1. Anderson and Wright are scheduled for Games 2 and 3, respectively. After that? Manager Brian Snitker said he isn’t thinking about it, although it is reasonable to think Games 4 and 5 could be bullpen games.
It is not ideal, but it can work. The Braves’ bullpen had a 3.50 ERA this season, which ranked fourth in the Majors.
“They’ve been having that success ever since we started in July,” Snitker said. “Our bullpen has been the reason that we’re here, obviously. We had issues with our starting pitching -- the lack thereof. These guys have been pitching out of the bullpen really, really well for 62 games. I still have a lot of confidence in every one of those guys.”
Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz deserves credit for keeping everything together, despite the staff’s numerous challenges. Kranitz has a remarkable ability to connect with his pitchers, earning their trust to make changes in the bullpen or simply make them feel better after a bad start.
In an analytics world, call it an old-school way of finding value at the margins.
“He’s done a tremendous job,” Snitker said. “The positivity, how he approaches things, the feel that he has with the guys. … He’s a very hands-on guy, every day getting the pulse of everybody. He’s a very positive man. That speaks volumes. That goes a long way with young pitchers and veteran guys. The good thing about Kranny is he’s a crossover. He can handle the veterans, and he’s really, really good with the young guys also.”
Kranitz is tasked this week with putting Fried, Anderson and Wright in the best position to succeed, then helping Snitker push the right buttons when it comes time to use the bullpen.
Fried went 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA in 11 starts in the regular season, then pitched seven scoreless innings in Game 1 of the WCS. Anderson went 3-2 with a 1.95 ERA in six starts, then pitched six scoreless innings in Game 2 of the WCS. Wright went 2-4 with a 5.21 ERA in eight starts, but 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA in his final three, tossing at least six innings in each of them.
“Kranny has been huge for us,” Fried said. “Since I first met him at the beginning of last year … he’s instilled this confidence in me. He believes in every single one of his guys here. When you have someone who believes in you as much as he does, it just allows you to go out there and let your talents take over and get out of your own way.
“Being as prepared as he is and being able to pass along that knowledge, not overcomplicating things, keeping things as simple as possible, you know he’s always going to be there in your corner.”
Everybody knew the Braves would hit in 2020, but nobody knew their pitching could sustain so many hits. At this point, they believe they have enough arms to keep playing baseball deep into October.