Behind Fried, Braves on cusp of NL East title

September 30th, 2021

ATLANTA -- As the Braves find themselves on the brink of winning a fourth consecutive National League East title, there’s reason to wonder if the one-two punch of and might be what sets this team apart from Atlanta’s past three division winners.

“That’s a pretty good one-two punch,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “They’re both battle tested, too. They’ve both pitched in big games and they continue to do so. It’s pretty good to have two guys like that you can lean on.”

Fried answered the call and extended his second-half dominance while helping the Braves claim a 7-2 win over the Phillies on Wednesday at Truist Park. The victory -- combined with Morton’s seven scoreless innings in Tuesday’s series opener -- has moved Atlanta one step away from another division title.

“I think winning the first game is huge, and in our situation, winning this game is even more huge to trim the [magic] number,” Snitker said. “You’ve still got to go out and fight to win another game. But it’s big to win these first two games.”

Games remaining: 1 vs. Phillies, 3 vs. Mets, 1 vs. Rockies (if necessary)

Standings update: Braves lead the Phillies by 4 1/2 games with four or potentially five games remaining. The fifth game would be played against Colorado on Monday at Truist Park, but only if Atlanta and Philadelphia are separated by a half-game at Sunday’s conclusion.

Magic number for division title: The Braves have reduced their magic number to one, meaning they will clinch with one more victory or one more Phillies loss.

With wins in the first two games of this series, the Braves have created the possibility of clinching before what could be the regular-season finale on Sunday. Clinching early would allow them to rest some of their regular position players and would also give Morton the choice of how many innings he might want to throw Sunday. The veteran right-hander could opt not to pitch at all or just throw a few frames against the Mets.

Whether the Braves would start Morton or Fried in Game 1 of the NL Division Series against the Brewers will be determined after the NL East race is complete. The schedule is set up in a way that would allow the Game 2 starter to return for Game 5 on regular rest.

So, the Braves really could go with either of these legit front-line starters in the opener of the best-of-five series.

“Those guys work their tails off,” Braves third baseman Austin Riley said. “I wish you could see the preparation both of them do. Max, tonight was outstanding. I mean, I just can't say enough about those guys.”

Dansby Swanson notched his first three-hit game since Aug. 14 and Riley drove in runs during both a two-run first and a four-run seventh. They helped provide ample support for Fried, who allowed two runs (one earned) on four hits while striking out six and walking none over seven innings.

Fried might not have been as dominant as Morton, who recorded 10 strikeouts while limiting the Phillies to three hits over seven scoreless innings in Tuesday’s series opener. But he too looked like an ace.

“I kind of just wanted to follow [Morton’s start] up,” Fried said. “I wanted to go out there and kind of keep us in the game, knowing this lineup could explode at any second.”

It’s been a while since any lineup has exploded against Fried. The lefty has an NL-best 1.74 ERA since the All-Star break. He had worked 17 consecutive scoreless innings before the Phillies tallied a run with three straight two-out singles in the second. Only one of those singles had an exit velocity that exceeded 85 mph.

Morton has been one of the game’s top postseason pitchers over the past four seasons, and Fried has gained valuable playoff experience each of the past three years. They give the Braves a level of confidence that didn’t exist in 2018 when Mike Foltynewicz and Aníbal Sánchez were Atlanta’s top playoff starters.

Maybe with Mike Soroka, Dallas Keuchel and Foltynewicz in 2019, the Braves had the potential of having a formidable postseason rotation. But given that Soroka was set up to start just once, that trio would make for a weak argument.

And the Braves are definitely in better position than they were last year when their top two starters were Fried and Ian Anderson, who had just six career starts under his belt entering the playoffs.

But before thinking ahead to the playoffs, the Braves know they are still a step away from getting there.

“We know we have a job to do and it’s kind of head down until that happens,” Fried said.