PHILADELPHIA -- It was perhaps only fitting that the most unusual start of Max Fried's young career was marked by one of the strangest plays of the season in Tuesday's 6-5 loss to the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.
By the time Ronald Acuña Jr. leaped in an attempt to rob Phillies center fielder Scott Kingery of a home run in the third inning, Fried had already served up a career-high three homers. Kingery's liner certainly had the distance to make it four, but Acuna timed his jump perfectly and came down with the ball in his glove to temporarily preserve the 4-4 tie. Or so he thought.
As Acuna began to celebrate the potential inning-ending catch, he realized that the ball had slipped out of his glove on the way down. He quickly motioned to the infield, seemingly claiming to have caught the ball, while Kingery raced around the bases. Though Acuna eventually tracked down the ball and fired it to the infield, Kingery was able to slide in to home safely for an inside-the-park homer that put Philadelphia ahead for good.
"I thought he was going to catch it. And he did," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "It just didn’t stay in."
Snitker certainly wasn't alone in thinking Acuna had made another highlight-reel grab.
"I thought he had it," Fried said. "Then I saw kind of the ball pop up, and I wasn’t really sure what was going on. I saw [Kingery] keep running and that was about it."
"I think we all thought he made the play," said right fielder Johan Camargo, who went 2-for-3 with a solo homer and a double. "But those things happen, it’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just one of those things."
Even Kingery slowed down momentarily as he reached second, before turning on the jets for the last 180 feet.
"It’s a hell of a play for him to even get a glove on it," Kingery said, "But thankfully it came out."
Fried struck out the next batter, then breezed through his final two frames, but the damage had been done. The left-hander allowed four home runs over five innings, twice as many as he had allowed over 40 1/3 innings in his last seven starts.
Fried had also never allowed more than two homers in any of his previous 52 outings (36 starts). He eclipsed that total in the first inning alone, serving up three quick homers, including back-to-back shots by J.T. Realmuto and Bryce Harper on consecutive pitches. Rhys Hoskins nearly made it three straight when he rocketed a ball off the center-field wall, but settled for a double before Corey Dickerson lined a two-run blast two batters later.
“They came out swinging. They came out really aggressive and I threw a couple pitches that just kind of spun in there," Fried said. "They made some good contact in the first. I felt like I was able to settle down a bit after and get back to making some good, quality pitches.”
All four of the Phillies’ extra-base hits in the opening frame had an exit velocity of at least 106 mph, according to Statcast. Fried, however, allowed only one batted ball with an exit velocity greater than 95 mph the rest of the night, and that came on Kingery's homer (104.1 mph).
After allowing four runs on four hits and throwing 24 pitches in the opening frame, Fried needed only 55 pitches to get through the next four. By battling his way through five innings, Fried became the first Braves pitcher to last at least five frames after yielding three first-inning homers since Kevin Millwood did so on June 12, 1999.
“That’s a really good sign. It shows maturity," Snitker said. "He didn’t cave in, he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. He just kept pitching, righted the ship. It was three pitches that weren’t located, and they didn’t miss them. He regrouped, kept us in the game and gave us a chance to come back.”
The Braves erased the early deficit with a four-run rally in the top of the third to tie the game, only to give the lead back on Kingery's inside-the-parker in the bottom half. It marked the first time the Braves lost one of Fried's starts since July 6, snapping a streak of nine consecutive team wins. Fried's rocky outing also came on the heels of the best start of his career, in which he held the Nationals to one hit over seven scoreless innings on Thursday.
"It’s not always going to be like the last start, when you’re hitting on all cylinders and you can pitch all night," Snitker said. "There’s going to be some bumps in the road and I thought he handled that one tonight really, really well."
In a season with few bumps, even this one came with a silver lining for the Braves. Thanks to the Nationals' loss to the Twins, Atlanta maintained its 9 1/2-game lead in the National League East and lowered its magic number to clinch the division to nine.