Max Fried and the Atlanta Braves are the slow-burn contenders of the NL

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - AUGUST 30: Max Fried #54 of the Atlanta Braves pitches in the second inning against the Chicago White Sox at SunTrust Park on August 30, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - AUGUST 30: Max Fried #54 of the Atlanta Braves pitches in the second inning against the Chicago White Sox at SunTrust Park on August 30, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

In the first of seven key September showdowns between the Atlanta Braves took on the Nationals on Thursday night, Max Fried rose to the occasion.

Atlanta Braves southpaw Max Fried deployed his slow hook with laser precision on Thursday night, toying with the Washington Nationals as they sucked air through curveball after curveball. He was a kid with a laser pointer, and the Nationals a mess of cats. They never had a chance.

Fried was Glavinesque: retiring the final 19 Nationals’ hitters he faced, Fried needed only 90 pitches (61 strikes) to get through 7 spotless innings and secure his 15th win of the season. This was a big one.

Against repeated 75 mph hooks, the Nats looked clumsy and lacking in creativity. Fried faced 22 hitters in total, retiring all but one: a slow trickling infield base hit by Anthony Rendon in the first inning. Not only was the curveball 12 to 6ing like its design, but Fried didn’t give an inch by not walking a single batter. He finished the night with nine strikeouts.

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The Nats managed decent contact, but there’s no evidence of it in the box score. Howie Kendrick twice exceeded 100 mph exit velocities, but he went hitless for the night. The Nationals had four at-bats that with expected batting averages of at least .500 – four at-bats that tallied an actual batting average of .000.

The Braves didn’t do a whole lot better from a Statcast perspective: 5 knocks with xBAs of at least .500 to the Nats’ 4. Stephen Strasburg put together a fine, if clunky performance as he did his best to keep pace, but by the time Josh Donaldson came to the dish, the fourth Brave to hit in the ballgame, Atlanta already led 2-0.

After Ronald Acuna Jr. roped a single to leadoff the bottom of the first, Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman dinked and doinked, respectively, a double and single. Texas leaguers with exit velocities of less than 66 mph don’t typically raise one’s slugging percentage, but there it was. The baseball gods came out early for this one on behalf the the Bravos.

Counterintuitively, though this game meant much more to the 2nd place Nationals, it says more about the Braves. For years Atlanta’s impressive collection of farm arms threatened to turn SunTrust Park into a major power – Max Fried is that promise fulfilled. He secured his place among the Georgian Valkyrie with this season’s performance: 15-4, 4.05 ERA/3.65 FIP, 142 1/3 innings, 3.57 K:BB.

The curious thing is, he’s not the breakout star of Atlanta’s starting staff. That would be Mike Soroka, the 22-year-old former 1st-rounder, author of a 2.53 ERA/3.33 FIP across 152 2/3 innings. Soroka trails only Hyun-Jin Ryu for the ERA title in the National League and looks the part of a future ace in Atlanta.

Soroka may be the All-Star of the two (in both literal and figurative terms), but Fried’s emergence signals the true arrival of this generation of Braves hurlers. After all, the prospect anticipation in Atlanta wasn’t predicated on any single pitcher. Rather, the volume of talent is what made their young arms a unit of note around baseball.

If there’s an area of concern that might hold this team back, however ironic it may seem, it’s volume. Outings get shorter in the postseason, and the bullpen’s gonna have to do their part to push this cart uphill. Fried couldn’t have been more on his game against the Nationals, but the Braves still pulled him after 90 pitches. On Thursday that got them through seven innings, but on the road in October without a 7-game safety net, the Braves will need Fried to do more than swim downstream.

We’ve gotten used to title contenders storming the castle gates, the way the Cubs and Astros grew into one of the best team’s in baseball seemingly in the same instant we noticed they might. Like Fried’s slow-burn curveball, the Braves title window never moved so fast that we couldn’t see it, and yet it’s suddenly upon us. For those who still think these Braves are operating ahead of schedule, it’s time to recalibrate: they have all makings of a championship core.

Ozuna and Albies are the brash, young captains that will lead this club and perhaps the next iteration of Braves playoff squads.

Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, and Brian McCann form the folksy, veteran caste of ante-superstars, jaded enough to relinquish the spotlight, but still significant influencers on-field and off.

With Soroka, Fried, and Dallas Keuchel, they have two babyfaced, ice-cold assassins, and the begrudging mentor who was coaxed from his hideaway in the woods to train them.

Though we’ve talked about the Braves as a team on the rise for years now, they arrived well before Tuesday night as legit contenders in the National League. Somehow, we just missed it.

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The Phillies, Mets, and Nationals wrote their own headlines this season, but those organizations can’t match the Braves for consistency. The Nats are headed for the wild card game, and they’re stacked with high-end talent, but with every two steps forward, they take one step back. The Mets and Phillies are the inverse, moving backwards despite flashy moves and gaudy talk. As they tried to storm the league at 100 mph, their missteps were laid all the more bare.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves keep pluggin’ away, oh, at about 75mph.