HOUSTON — Travis d’Arnaud knew that tonight would be different after the first few pitches that he caught in the bullpen.
He could tell by the fastball. The pitch was working for Braves starter Max Fried in a way that it had not in the bullpen before his last start. The warm-up pitches were zipping into his catcher’s glove with the same lively movement that had bedeviled so many opposing hitters this year. This, d’Arnaud knew, was the same Max Fried whom he had caught through August and September, when the lefty looked like one of the best pitchers in the game. This was the Max Fried who had been missing on the mound during a loss in Game 2.
This was the Max Fried who was going to help them win the World Series.
“He was drilling every pitch,” d’Arnaud said of the bullpen session. “He had it.”
In six scoreless innings, Fried struck out six and walked none, with only one runner advancing beyond first base. His performance made it possible for the Braves to romp to a 7–0 victory over the Astros. In a World Series where no starter had previously completed more than five innings, prompting much discussion about the role of the starting pitcher, Fried’s outing felt like a firm rejoinder: There is still plenty of room in modern baseball for a starter to be not just the undisputed star of a game but also its director. Fried was the most dazzling player on the field Tuesday. And more than that, he seemed entirely, unshakably in control, not just of himself but of the night—not the center of the action so much as the source of it.
“After his last start, he was upset with his performance, and each day, he wanted the ball to show the world what he was capable of and who he really is,” d’Arnaud said on the infield afterward, drenched in champagne, his family beside him. “He went out today and showed it.”
Making Fried’s night all the more astounding was the fact that it briefly looked as if it would be cut short before it had a chance to really get started. The Astros’ leadoff hitter, Jose Altuve, got aboard with a soft-struck infield single. Their second batter of the night, Michael Brantley, hit a soft chopper fielded by Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman. This left Fried to cover the bag. But Freeman’s toss was awkward, Fried’s angle was uncomfortable, and Brantley stepped directly on the pitcher’s outstretched ankle.
In the dugout, Braves manager Brian Snitker turned to pitching coach Rick Kranitz. The two meet for half an hour before every game to go through every scenario that might happen to the pitching staff that night—trying to account for every possibility. But Tuesday’s meeting had most certainly not included anything close to, What if Fried has to be pulled before recording a single out?
“Oh, hell,” Kranitz recalled Snitker saying. “We didn’t have that one.”
As Snitker ran out to the mound with the athletic trainers to check on Fried, he told his pitching coach to think about which reliever would need to get ready, if their starter was in fact done. Kranitz, watching grimly, settled on Jesse Chavez. But no one made a call to the ‘pen, not even a preliminary, just-in-case one to get the veteran righty up. Fried had left no room for the coaching staff to debate: No one would be ringing up the bullpen. “He was not going to be denied,” Kranitz said. Fried was staying in the game.
“It didn’t feel good,” the pitcher conceded at his postgame press conference. “But at that point—it’s the World Series. You just got to figure out how to get through.”
Chavez, standing in the outfield after the game with a shirt soaked in champagne and a victory cigar in hand, said that he hadn’t known it would have been him who came in next. In the moment, hoping that all was fine with Fried, he had been trying not to think about it.
“That didn’t creep into my head,” he said. “But everyone down there was ready, because it’s the World Series, and you’ve got to be ready.”
The bullpen’s readiness was for naught: Atlanta had avoided the worst. But their situation remained tense. Fried had seen just two hitters, both were on base and the heart of the lineup was due up. This meant that the starter wasn’t thinking about the lingering pain in his ankle. Instead, he was focused on all that could go possibly wrong—flashing back to his last start, in Game 2, when he had allowed one run in the first inning and four in the second.
“The only thing I was worried about was first and second, nobody out,” Fried said, “I didn’t want the inning to get out of hand.”
He didn’t let it. Fried next got Carlos Correa to strike out swinging on a nasty slider, the hardest one that the pitcher had thrown since April. Kranitz, watching from the dugout, could only marvel: “That 90-mile-an-hour slider,” he reflected. “I knew at that point, when the slider had that kind of depth, this dude is ready to go. He’s good.”
Fried then coaxed an easy groundout from Yordan Alvarez. And finally, in one of his most mesmerizing at bats of the night, he engineered a three-pitch strikeout of Yuli Gurriel—three impeccably located fastballs (the last of which registered as the fastest-thrown strike of his career at 98.4 mph), placed at the southernmost edge of the zone, that left the hitter just staring.
“When you saw him bear down and get those outs, you saw him flip a switch,” Chavez said. “It was like, O.K., it’s go time.”
Fried never looked back.
The 27-year-old had been eager to redeem himself after his lackluster start in Game 2. In the early innings of Game 5 on Sunday, Kranitz said, when the pitcher was on three days’ rest, he kept asking if he could go out to the bullpen in case the team wanted him to pitch. “Easy, Max,” Kranitz had told him. But he brought that same energy to Game 6. Fried had said before the game that he was going to use absolutely everything he had, and, in a way that surprised even his catcher and his pitching coach, he did.
“He had the best sinker that he’s ever had in his career, and the best changeup that he’s ever had in his career,” d’Arnaud said. “I mean, two pitches that I don’t think anybody thought he had, and he was able to execute.”
They’re the two least-used choices in his arsenal: The sinker made up 11% of Fried’s pitches this season and the changeup just 2%. But both were working Tuesday—particularly the changeup—and he made good use of them.
Fried had not thrown more than six changeups in any start all year. In Game 6, he threw 11, all in his final three innings of work. When Kranitz saw the first changeup, he started “pacing like crazy,” nervous for his starter. But the pitch kept working, ultimately getting three whiffs and one called strike, and Fried kept throwing it. After one particularly strong swing-and-miss on the changeup, Kranitz turned to the man next to him in the dugout, Braves catching coach Sal Fasano, in awe.
“I just can’t believe he’s doing this, man,” he said. “I can’t believe it.”
Snitker played it somewhat conservative, pulling Fried at 74 pitches to hand things over to the “Night Shift,” the lights-out, lockdown bullpen. And when the manager told him that was it for his night, that he should sit down with pride, one of the first people to approach Fried was Freeman. The first baseman had sent the pitcher a long text that morning, “a big boost of encouragement, just saying that he believed in me and that he knew that I could get this done,” Fried said. “To be able just to have that support from someone like that—it made my confidence go up.”
In the dugout in the sixth inning, after that confidence had shone for the world, the two shared a long embrace. As they did, Fried thought about how far Freeman, the face of the franchise, had come in the last decade.
“You know how much that he’s been through,” he said. “Just from the beginning of going through the rebuild, to winning the division and then winning it four times, and getting to the playoffs, getting past the first round—”
In the breath between clauses, a vanishing fraction of a second, hung the grind of a journey and a lifetime of dreams. It passed. The pitcher knew how to finish his sentence.
“—and then eventually, World Series champion.”
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