ATLANTA — In the debate between rest vs. rust, the latter won out, and now the pressure’s on.
The two givens for this Atlanta Braves team — Max Fried performing at an ace level, an explosive offense feasting on opportunities — failed them early. Even some ninth-inning magic could make up for it as the Braves fell 7-6 to the Philadelphia Phillies in Tuesday’s Game 1 of their National League Division Series at Truist Park.
“We had the guys on and (we just needed) a two-out hit here and there,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “As I said before, they got them and we didn’t. But we certainly gave ourselves a chance to do something big there, we just couldn’t get a big hit.”
While the Phillies were tangling with the St. Louis Cardinals in the Wild-Card Round, the National League East champion Braves had five days off, and it showed. An Atlanta lineup that was third in the majors in runs had one on four hits through four innings as Philadelphia jumped out to a commanding lead.
The Braves shook off that rust, getting within one with one out in the ninth, as Matt Olson belted a three-run home run to dead center. But the comeback bid stalled with a Travis d’Arnaud ground out, and now the Braves are down in the series, and historically, it hasn’t been a good omen.
They are 15-5 when they win a postseason series opener, and 4-17 when they don’t. The Braves haven’t lost consecutive games since the middle of September — that coming vs. these Phillies in their last regular-season series — and they did lose Game 1 of last year’s NLDS vs. the Milwaukee Brewers, but of course won that series en route to a championship.
It’s up to Kyle Wright, the MLB wins leader, to help pen a home split Wednesday before the series shifts to Philadelphia.
On what went wrong, and the key for Wright, as we take Three Cuts after Game 1 of the NLDS.
Braves ace Max Fried reacts to his NLDS Game 1 performance:— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) October 11, 2022
"I'm not going to make any excuses. I took the ball today and put us in a big hole right away." pic.twitter.com/MK035Hi5l4
1. Max Fried was off, and Phillies made him pay
Day games have been the bane of the Braves’ season, with the fewest wins (24) of any postseason team and they were three games below .500 at 24-27. If anyone was going to make that point null and void, it was Fried, who’s climbed Ace Mountain and pitched the World Series clincher last fall.
But Fried lasted all of 3 1/3 innings, allowing six runs (four earned) on eight hits. It was the shortest postseason start of his career and tied Game 2 of last year’s Fall Classic for the most runs scored in the playoffs with the left-hander on the mound.
“I’m not going to make any excuses. I took the ball today and put us in a big hole right away, right off the bat,” Fried said.
“They came out swinging and had a good approach. Frankly, I just didn’t do my job today. The guys were counting on me to go out and have a good start and keep it a close game and I just let it get out of the way too quick.”
It was uncharacteristic stuff from Fried, who had an 11-day layoff after leaving his Sept. 30 start vs. the New York Mets after five innings with the flu. He generated a 19 percent whiff rate on the day, his lowest since July 11, a span of 12 starts, and his 20 percent whiff rate on the curveball was also lowest since that date.
“Just wasn’t able to put guys away when I needed to,” Fried said. “Maybe some two-strike pitches even though they were still in the strike zone, the balls that maybe should be a little bit outside to make them chase weaker contact, they were able to put the bat on the ball well enough to be able to get base hits and keep the line moving.”
Fried’s velocity was down across the board, including a 1.3 mph drop in his four-seam fastball. That pitch was at 92.7 mph after sitting at 94 across the regular season, and Tuesday’s average was lower than in any of Fried’s 30 outings from April-September. In a concerning trend, Fried hasn’t been near that season average of 94 mph since July 31.
“I asked him after the fourth, when he came off,” Snitker said about the drop in Fried’s velocity. “He went down and he was mad and everything. I just wanted to make sure he was OK physically. And he just kind of wasn’t firing today, pretty much.”
Adding to a day in which he didn’t look typical Max Fried, the two-time Gold Glove winner committed a throwing error, allowing J.T. Realmuto to reach in the third inning and setting the stage for the Phillies to end that inning with a 4-1. It was Fried’s first error in 18 career postseason games and just his fourth error since 2019.
The Braves will certainly look to their All-Star starter if the series extends to a Game 5 and Fried has been no stranger to October redemption. The Houston Astros got to him for six runs on seven hits in Game 2 in the World Series and Fried responded with a start that keyed a parade.
“I took the ball knowing this was Game 1 of the playoffs. I’m taking the ball and I’m ready to go,” Fried said. “The results didn’t come out the way I wanted, but I’m really encouraged with the way we battled and ended that game today, and hopefully I’ll be able to get another opportunity to get out there and redeem myself.”
Ranger Suarez escapes another bases-loaded situation against the Braves pic.twitter.com/G2WDjEO6P0— Phillies Nation (@PhlsNationCP) October 11, 2022
2. Wasted opportunities early loomed large for Braves bats
Things started off well enough, with Ronald Acuña Jr. hitting a leadoff single in the first — as the Braves looked to counter the Phillies taking a 1-0 lead — but instead, Acuña set the trend for the lineup’s early struggles as he was left stranded at third.
The Braves had the bases loaded in the second — ending that threat as William Contreras hit into an inning-ending double play — and again in the third, only for d’Arnaud to strike out.
“We had (Phillies starter Ranger Suarez) on the ropes,” Snitker said. “He was struggling too. We just couldn’t get a big hit. We had the decks stacked in our favor three times against him. And we just couldn’t — they got big hits, and we didn’t.”
Atlanta was 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position and stranded nine runners until Olson came through with his ninth-inning blast to score Acuña and Swanson. It was an expected dry spell for an offense that in the regular season was tied for third in wOBA (.340) with RISP, and from June on, nobody was better, with a 134 wRC+.
Phillies starter Ranger Suarez had been strong of late, including one run over 17 innings over his last three. But the Braves had feasted on left-handed starters, going 37-17, a .685 winning percentage that was third best in the majors behind the Astros (.778) and St. Louis Cardinals (.686), and they were second in the NL with 118 wRC+ vs. southpaws.
Add in Suarez’s problems vs. right-handers, it seemed a great matchup with Acuña, d’Arnaud, William Contreras, Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson all in the lineup. But Suarez allowed one run on three hits and the Phillies bullpen caused further headaches, especially for Swanson (1-for-5 with four strikeouts) and Riley (0-for-4 with three Ks).
3. The biggest start of Kyle Wright’s career looms
Wright will take the mound Wednesday in what stands as the biggest start of his career. The Phillies are countering with Zack Wheeler and are likely to turn to Aaron Nola in Friday’s Game 3, both of whom are riding 14 1/3 inning scoreless streaks. Needless to say, the Braves can ill afford to head to Philadelphia on the brink of elimination.
A key subplot as Wright as he looks to get the Braves back in this series is the pitch that helped him go from breakout candidate to a career breakthrough.
Going back to the makeup that made him a top-five pick out of Vanderbilt, Wright’s curveball usage surged this season, going from 12.0 percent in 2019, 13.1 percent in 2020 and 14.3 percent in 2021 to a 34.1 percent rate. Only Wright’s teammate Charlie Morton (1,103) and the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright (995) threw more than Wright’s 919.
“I made some mechanical changes. That’s kind of been a big one. I’ve also started to use my curveball more,” Wright said Tuesday. “Those two paired together has then kind of allowed me — my command’s gotten better. All my stuff, numbers-wise, has improved.”
On the season, Philadelphia was among the league’s better teams vs. the curveball, ranking third in the NL and seventh overall at 7.7 wCB, topped by Alec Bohm, who was eighth overall (6.3). But within his .211 average against on the curve, Wright was especially effective vs. the Phillies, who he held to a .130 average on the pitch, and .102/.209/.271 overall.
Wright will need to be at the top of his game starting opposite Wheeler, who had a 2.70 ERA in three starts against the Braves, including seven one-run innings with seven strikeouts when he last faced them on Aug. 3.