FORT MYERS, Fla. -- April 7 marks the day the Braves begin the quest to defend their 2021 World Series title, and Max Fried is the guy who’ll lead the charge.
The decision came down to either Fried or Charlie Morton, a pair of frontline starters that had both earned Opening Day starts, in 2021 and 2020, respectively. It was a difficult call to make for manager Brian Snitker, who has kept the pair on the same schedule for most of the spring to allow for the option of either earning the honor.
Tough as it may have been, Snitker was quick to recognize that it was a problem Atlanta was fortunate to have.
“It’s kind of like when we had [Greg] Maddux, [Tom] Glavine and [John] Smoltz,” he said Sunday. “You can’t go wrong with any of your choices."
In the end, Fried will get the ball on Opening Day when Atlanta opens against the Reds at Truist Park.
It marks the second consecutive Opening Day nod for Fried, and he’s certainly earned the honor. After a 6-5 record and 4.71 ERA to kick off the 2021 season, the 28-year-old lefty steadily gained steam and had MLB’s best ERA (1.74) in the second half to complement an 11-3 record.
“We can't go wrong with him or Charlie,” Snitker said Wednesday following Atlanta’s 10-7 loss to the Red Sox at JetBlue Park. “It's just kind of, Max has pitched some really big games for us in his young career, and it just kind of seems like a nice honor to bestow on him.”
As was the case for many last fall, Fried harnessed the added adrenaline of the postseason. He opened with a scoreless six-inning, nine-K gem to earn the win in Game 2 of the National League Division Series against the Brewers, a series that Atlanta eventually took, 3-1. Fried next toed the rubber in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series, held the Dodgers to a pair of runs and struck out five across six innings.
The Braves won that game, 3-2, and the series, 4-2. Fried had back-to-back hiccups in Game 5 of the NLCS and Game 2 of the World Series, allowing 11 total runs, but all of that was forgotten in Houston on Nov. 2.
On baseball’s biggest stage that night, Fried fearlessly shook off a first-inning collision with the Astros’ Michael Brantley and went on to pitch the first scoreless start of six-plus innings in a potential World Series clincher since White Sox starter Freddy Garcia stymied Houston over seven frames in Game 4 back in 2005.
Fried did it in dominating fashion, holding the powerful Astros to just four hits and striking out six to help the Braves bring home their first championship since 1995.
“I wanted to make sure I left everything out there,” Fried said afterward.
On April 7, he’ll have a chance to start right where he left off. At the forefront of a powerful rotation that so far includes Morton, Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright and Huascar Ynoa, Fried has a career 40-18 record and a 3.34 ERA across parts of five seasons.
“It's not an easy decision,” Snitker said, of deciding who would get the ball to open the season. “There's no right or wrong. Just Max's total body of work, more than … one out, is what we're looking at.”
Morton was also given serious consideration for the Opening Day honor, and the fact that he’ll now pitch on April 8 is anything but a slight. Morton’s storied 14-year career began with the Braves, of course, as a third-round pick out of high school in the 2002 MLB Draft. His work carried him through stops in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Houston and Tampa Bay before dropping him off right back in Atlanta last season in his age-37 campaign.
The 14-6 regular-season record and 3.34 ERA were a great way to celebrate the return “home,” but perhaps no statement was more Uncle Charlie than Game 1 of the Fall Classic.
It’s hard to imagine another pitcher gritting through what Morton did that night, when he was struck on the right shin by a 104.2 mph comebacker off Yuli Gurriel’s bat in the second inning. Morton not only stayed in the game to finish the frame but came back out for the third, throwing 16 pitches on what we later learned was a fractured fibula – and retiring all three Astros he faced – fanning Jose Altuve on his final offering before he limped off the field.
It was one of the greatest storylines of the series, but though Morton said he was “in a good spot” to start the spring, he’s still just five months removed from the injury and the ensuing surgery to repair it.
“Originally, coming in, we honestly didn't know where Charlie would be,” Snitker said. “We didn't realize he'd be this far along. We didn't know what that might be, but where he's at ... I love where he's at.
“I'm loving that we're slotting him [at] 2, because we thought we might have to hold off on him a little bit because we didn't know how the foot would respond and all that, and he's feeling good. So that's worked out really well.”
And at the end of the day, Snitker lamented, only one pitcher can start Opening Day.
This year, that guy is Fried.