Behind Max Fried, Braves Even NLDS as Brewers Can’t Find Offense

For both the Braves and Brewers, postseason success shares a similar blueprint: length from the starters, timely hits from the lineup, hope for the best with the bullpen (albeit at different times). Milwaukee executed that to perfection in Game 1 of this NLDS; in Game 2, it was Atlanta’s turn, with the Braves drawing the series even with a 3–0 win.

The difference on Saturday was Max Fried, who out-dueled Brandon Woodruff with six shutout innings, striking out nine against just three hits and zero walks. The lefty needed only 81 pitches to record his 18 outs before giving way to three relievers, who dodged plenty of trouble but managed to secure the final three frames with no damage. Like Corbin Burnes in Game 1, Fried didn’t so much beat opposing batters as brush them aside; Willy Adames was the lone Brewer to make it as far as second base against him on a sixth-inning double. Most of his outing was whiffs and soft contact, with Adames’ double the only ball in play he allowed to crack the 100 mph exit velocity mark. At-bats and innings were over in flashes.

The explanation for Fried’s success is simple: He threw strikes. Of his 81 pitches, 58 were in the zone, a 71.6% rate, which he pounded with his four-seamer — humming in at 95 mph on average — before busting out his slider and curve to finish things. Not normally a big swing-and-miss pitcher, he racked up a dozen whiffs on the day, six on the slider, to go with a CSW (called strikes + whiffs) rate of 40%; of his nine strikeouts, seven were swinging. By the time the middle innings rolled around, he’d found a groove: The final 10 Brewers hitters he faced all started their at-bats with a strike, and just two of them reached base.

As the Braves learned in Game 1, a pitching performance like that can make one run feel like 10. As a favor to Fried, they went ahead and got him three. The first two crossed in the third; a one-out Jorge Soler double was followed by a line drive single from Freddie Freeman over the shift in right field and a double off the bat of Ozzie Albies. That latter hit — a scalded low changeup — missed being a home run by an inch or two, donking off the top of the wall in right. Nonetheless, that drove in Freeman to make it 2–0:

Albies came up a foot shy of his first home run this postseason; Austin Riley didn’t. With one out in the top of the sixth, Atlanta’s third baseman muscled a changeup to right-center, driving it 428 feet at 105.7 mph off the bat to make it 3–0:

Fried didn’t need those extra runs, pitching around Adames’ double in the sixth by striking out Eduardo Escobar, but the final three innings probably left Braves fans wishing they’d gotten more. With Fried done after six, Luke Jackson — who tossed a scoreless inning in Game 1 — was asked to handle the seventh. Swinging strikeouts of Avisaíl García and Christian Yelich got things off on the right foot, but a single by Luis Urías and a walk to Lorenzo Cain brought out Brian Snitker and brought in Tyler Matzek, who had also appeared in Game 1. He whiffed pinch-hitter Tyrone Taylor to shut down that rally only to create one of his own in the eighth, as Snitker elected to let his top southpaw face the pitcher’s spot and Kolten Wong, also a lefty. That plan fell apart quickly: Pinch-hitter Jace Peterson walked and Wong dropped a single into right to put two on with no one out and the heart of the order due up.

If you check out our Win Probability graph for this game, you’ll see this moment as a sudden peak near the end amid a steady decline — the first time since the third inning that the Brewers had forged any real threat:

You’ll also see how quickly that chance vanished; Milwaukee’s odds tumbled as Matzek recovered to strike out Adames and get Escobar to lift a lazy fly ball to right. He finished the threat by striking out García, pummeling the veteran outfielder with 97-mph fastballs that caught too much of the plate but that were fouled sharply back, before dismissing him with a perfectly placed slider on the outside corner.

One last heart attack awaited, as Snitker turned to Will Smith for the save. The 32-year-old closer, who at times this season seemed to keep his job more out of inertia than merit, appeared to find his footing in the final month, but his control and command wavered. That was the case on Saturday, too, as he walked Yelich on seven pitches to start the ninth. Bad luck followed bad performance: a two-strike slider to Urías resulted in a broken bat and a bloop single into no-man’s land in shallow left. (Take a peek at that Win Probability graph again and you’ll see this as a second odds spike, the K2 to the eighth-inning’s Mount Everest.) Again, Milwaukee had two on with no one out, but again, the lineup produced nothing; Cain lined a first-pitch curveball directly at Adam Duvall in right, and third-string catcher Luke Maile smashed a slider to Riley at third, who started a 5-4-3 double play to end it.

That it was Maile hitting with the game on the line — he replaced Manny Piña behind the plate in the eighth after Craig Counsell pinch-hit for him in the seventh — shows just how thin the margin for error is for the Brewers. Atlanta’s lineup is no juggernaut, but there are still plenty of mines in the water: Freeman, Albies, Riley, Soler. Milwaukee has no such obstacles, not with Yelich stuck in an endless funk. Adames’ post-trade hot streak helped the Brewers reach this point, as did positive seasons from García and Wong, but they’re more complementary bats than leading lights. Few if any teams can boast a better 1-2-3 than Burnes, Woodruff and Freddy Peralta; few other postseason teams are also as easy to handle offensively. Milwaukee has all of two runs in 17 innings of this series, both of which came on a single swing from Rowdy Tellez. No matter how good the starters are, they can’t win without run support.

The good news for the Brewers is that they won’t see Fried again until a potential Game 5. But so far, they’ve had limited success against just about everyone the Braves have thrown at them. Nonetheless, the path forward is the same as the one that brought Milwaukee here: rely on the pitchers, scrape together enough runs to make that work. The concern now is that Atlanta can play the same game — and possibly do it better.

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1 year ago

I am curious about who the starters who be for Game 4. Houser pitched two innings in Game 1. Burnes threw only 91 pitches. Might he start on short rest, or would it be Houser or Lauer?

For that matter, the Braves do have the option of Morton on short rest (he threw fewer than 80 pitches) in Game 4 as well, but I think Ynoa is a better option than Houser or Lauer.

I suspect it depends on who is facing elimination in Game 4.

1 year ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

For the Braves, they’re more likely to start Game 4 with either Huascar Ynoa or Drew Smyly. It could be a bullpen game, where they start with Jesse Chavez, then go to Ynoa or Smyly or both for length. You could see Fried in relief in Game 4, because that would be his usual bullpen day. Both Morton and Fried only have 1 start on 3 days rest in their careers.

I’m less familiar with the Brewers thinking. Burnes has not pitched on 3 days rest in his career. I think it will probably be Houser or Lauer, depending upon whether they use Houser in relief again.

1 year ago
Reply to  hughduffy

I would think Fried would be available game 4 if the Braves are facing elimination, but presumably and hopefully as a relief option to piggyback off Ynoa, not as a starter expected to go 4-5 innings. Of course, everyone possible is available for a game 5, I’d guess the Braves go with Morton, but wouldn’t hesitate to use Fried as a bullpen option on full rest (if Fried pitches in game 4 obviously he is out for game 5).