Braves’ Max Fried pitches in intrasquad game; AJ Smith-Shawver strengthens roster bid

ATLANTA — Max Fried made it through five innings and 76 pitches in an intrasquad game Tuesday, his first game in nearly two weeks. It was presumably all positive for Fried and the Atlanta Braves, even if he gave up a couple of home runs and pitched with a Band-Aid on his left index finger, the one that’s had a recurring blister in recent weeks.

Actually, that Fried pitched with a bandage, something he won’t be permitted to do in a game that counts, might’ve had something to do with him not being as sharp as usual. Pitchers say it’s hard to have feel for pitches with tape or a Band-Aid on a finger, particularly a digit as important to throwing a breaking ball as Fried’s index finger is for his vaunted curveball and slider.

Unofficially, Fried was charged with six hits and three runs (two earned) including back-to-back homers by Kevin Pillar and Sean Murphy to start the fourth inning. He had one strikeout and three walks, including two walks among the last three batters he faced in the fifth inning. Oh, and his team lost, 4-1, for those wondering.

The Braves didn’t make Fried or anyone else, including manager Brian Snitker, available to reporters after the game at Truist Park. The team said it wouldn’t have any media availability until a workout on Friday, the day before Game 1 of its National League Division Series. The Braves have two more intrasquad games, Wednesday and Thursday, seven-inning informal contests with free admission for fans.

The purpose of the games is to keep hitters sharp and avoid the kind of flat performance the Braves had a year ago in their four-game NLDS loss to the Phillies. The Braves had a first-round bye in 2022 and only took live batting practice and had two workouts between the regular season and NLDS.

This year, they’ll face the winner of a best-of-three Wild Card Series between the Phillies and Marlins, and the Braves will have had three intrasquad games and another workout during the five days between their regular-season finale and the NLDS opener.

One run charged to Fried was unearned because a runner was placed on base so that the veteran left-hander could work on pickoff moves and pitching with runners on base after he retired the first eight batters. Nicky Lopez’s double drove in that run in the third inning, and the inning was stopped after the Lopez double (that was unofficial, too, like everything else in the game).

Fried threw 44 strikes in 76 pitches in his first outing since Sept. 21 at Washington, when he pitched six innings of one-run ball but went on the 15-day injured list afterward due to a blister on the index finger. The Braves didn’t want to risk it cropping up again before the postseason, so they put him on the IL with the intention of having him ready for the NLDS, which is still the plan.

He will presumably start Game 2 of the NLDS on Monday, with Spencer Strider getting the series opener Saturday. There’s an off day in the series Sunday, and a travel day Tuesday after Game 2.

For the intrasquad game, the Braves had two teams comprised of their regular roster and others from Triple A, with a few more additions including Isiah Drake, the 18-year-old outfielder who was a fifth-round pick in this year’s draft out of North Atlanta High School. Drake entered in the fifth inning in center field, and lined a ball off the right-field wall for a standup triple in the seventh inning, displaying exceptional speed.

Fried was on the team that had almost the entire regular Braves lineup with the exception of Marcell Ozuna, who served as the DH for the other squad. Fried didn’t allow a runner to reach base until the third inning, when Dalton Guthrie hit a two-out soft single to center, followed by Lopez’s RBI double just inside the left-field line.

While the Braves needed only for Fried to stay healthy and keep his arm active, the other starter Tuesday, rookie AJ Smith-Shawver, had a chance to strengthen his candidacy for the postseason roster spot. He did just that, following up an impressive no-hit outing in 3 2/3 innings in his Sept. 28 start against the Cubs by giving up just one hit in five innings and 75 pitches Tuesday, with two walks and five strikeouts.

Record-setting attendance

The Braves sold out the last two games of the regular season to finish with just over 3.19 million fans through the gates at Truist Park, the most since the ballpark opened in 2017. It broke the record of 3.15 million set last season when the Braves were coming off a World Series championship.

“Just a testament to what Braves Country is,” Snitker said. “I tell people, it’s real. It’s a real thing. It’s a powerful thing, Braves Country is, and it cuts a big swath across the Southeast. And those fans have no idea what they mean to these guys. When you’re selling out that many, and (players) are waking up and their kids are beating them in the heads at 6:30 in the morning, and they’re tired and sore and achy from playing every day, and then they come and they feel that energy (from fans), they don’t feel that anymore, they’re ready to go.

“I think that’s a testament to the fans. And I think a lot of our success is due to the fact that they have that energy here, and you can’t thank them enough.”

Winans: ‘I’m blessed, man’

Last Friday was likely the last time Allan Winans will pitch for the Braves this year, and he fully appreciated every opportunity he had since debuting July 22, as a 27-year-old rookie on a team with the best record in the majors. The Braves are led by sluggers like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Matt Olson, and pitchers Fried and Strider, but they’ve also had plenty of contributions from bench players and pitchers like Winans from Triple A.

“I’m blessed, man. Definitely happy about this year,” said Winans, a 17th-round draft pick by the Mets out of Campbell University in 2018, who was poached by the Braves in the 2021 Rule 5 Draft after being left off the Mets’ Triple-A roster and thus unprotected.

That scenario only made it that much sweeter when he shone brightest in his second MLB start this season against the Mets at Citi Field on Aug. 12, pitching seven scoreless innings of four-hit ball with two walks and nine strikeouts for his first big-league win.

While that was the high point of the season for him individually, Winans had two strong starts during the playoff race in September against the Pirates and Nationals and had a respectable 4.33 ERA in his first five MLB starts before giving up six runs and six hits including a career-high three homers in 5 1/3 innings of Friday’s loss to the Nationals.

That raised his ERA to 5.33, but the Braves were nonetheless pleased with the work he did this season, including at some important junctures when some of Atlanta’s regular starters were injured or needed rest.

“I enjoy watching him pitch,” Snitker said. “He’s been a very impressive guy. Another guy who just kind of busted on the scene here. Didn’t really know who he was till he got here, and it’s been pretty impressive. … Kind of like (Bryce) Elder did the same thing (late in the 2022 season), really.”

The Braves gave Winans his first opportunity after he excelled at Triple-A Gwinnett, where he ranked among the league leaders in several categories and finished the season with a 2.85 ERA in 23 games including 17 starts, and had 113 strikeouts with only 36 walks in 126 1/3 innings.

With Atlanta, he had an even better strikeouts-to-walks ratio with 34 Ks and eight walks in 32 1/3 innings.

“This has been one of the coolest seasons of my life,” Winans said. “I was talking to somebody (after Friday’s game), he texted me and asked me how I felt, and I said, ‘I feel great.’ I gave the team a chance to win (in most of his starts), that’s all I can do. I’m really excited to go into the offseason and get a lot better. I feel like I learned a lot this year, and this is probably some of the most exciting times of my life. So I’m really excited to get to work and figure out some things that I really want to get better at, and enjoy some time with the family once I do get into the offseason, and get ready for next year.”

Winans doesn’t know if the Braves will strongly consider him for a postseason spot, but he’ll continue pitching and be ready just in case.

“My job is to try to help the Braves win, and wherever that’s going to happen – I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but whenever I can get the opportunity, that’s the plan,” he said. “To be a small little blip on this team is really special. … There’s a reason why this team is winning and why this team is so good. Because the people that are in this clubhouse make it easy for everyone else to succeed. Yeah, man, it’s definitely a dream come true.”

(Photo of Max Fried: Brett Davis/USA Today)

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