Max Fried vs. Paul Skenes, and the Braves' extra-innings win in four parts

ATLANTA — The anticipated pitching matchup between Atlanta Braves veteran Max Fried and Pittsburgh Pirates phenom Paul Skenes lived up to its billing, but the Braves’ 2-1 walk-off win Saturday was ultimately decided by a homer, an overturned call at the plate, and a 10th-inning game-ending hit from Adam Duvall, whose severe slump has been well-chronicled, making it all the more gratifying for him and teammates.

“To be able to come up at a spot to kind of redeem myself, that was big,” Duvall said after he led off the 10th with a single to deep center field to give the Braves their 11th win in 16 games.

The winning tale in four parts:

The matchup

Fried has been one of baseball’s elite pitchers since Skenes was still in high school. The Braves left-hander has been on a terrific stretch since his third start of the season, and Skenes’ first seven weeks in the majors have been as impressive as any prospect in recent memory.

Their matchup met expectations, even if it wasn’t as clean as most of Fried’s recent starts or as dominant in the opening innings as some of Skenes’ games.

Daysbel Hernandez puts a tag on Edward Olivares that was ruled an out upon replay review. (Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)

Skenes gave up a homer to Jarred Kelenic on his third pitch and needed a couple of scorched double-play grounders off the bat of Marcell Ozuna to work around other trouble. His average fastball velocity (98 mph) was about 1 mph below his season average, but Skenes limited Atlanta to six hits and one run with two walks and nine strikeouts. It was the seventh time in his first nine starts he’s struck out at least seven.

Fried also worked out of several tight spots – the Pirates stranded seven runs in the first five innings – and finished with a similar line: six innings, six hits, one run, three walks, four strikeouts. Fried has a 2.08 ERA in his past 14 starts and a 1.92 ERA in his last 12.

“It was a really good matchup between two very good pitchers,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I’m nothing but impressed with the Skenes kid. He just keeps pitching and uses his assortment. He’s an impressive guy, that’s for sure. He doesn’t look like a first-year guy to me.”

The home run

Kelenic’s home run was his ninth for the Braves, all in 42 games since May 7, and his fifth homer in 14 starts since moving to the leadoff spot and center field after Michael Harris II strained a hamstring. Kelenic has a 1.046 OPS in that 14-game span while raising his average from .259 to .283.

“Skenes is a hell of a pitcher,” said Kelenic, who homered on a 1-and-1 fastball up in the strike zone. “He’s got really good stuff. It’s no secret. Everybody knows who he is. And I made a plan to myself that I was going to be aggressive in the zone, especially on the fastball early. And I just was on time for it. There’s no question that he’s going to be an absolute superstar. I was just ready for it.”

Throw in the May 26 game when Kelenic took over at leadoff and had three hits after Ronald Acuña Jr.’s season-ending knee injury in the first inning, and it gives him a .393 average batting leadoff in Kelenic’s first season with the Braves, after being traded from Seattle in December.

“Since he moved to the leadoff spot it just seems like he’s trying to get on base,” Fried said. “And he’s obviously been extremely hot here for the last couple of weeks.”

Kelenic, 24, was asked how this experience compares with others in his career including three seasons with the Mariners.

“We have such a good group, from top to bottom,” he said, “and I wake up and look forward to coming to the ballpark each and every day. I look forward to doing whatever I can to help win that night with these guys. I enjoy the conversations that we have in between innings, talking about our at-bats throughout the game and formulating a plan to try to beat that guy. And it’s unlike anything I’ve ever really experienced before, just because I’m around such a talented group and we have so many similar things that we talk about.”

He paused, thought about how to phrase it, and said, “It’s a very comforting, and just a fun atmosphere when you are around guys that have that same mentality.”

Snitker said, “It’s always nice to see a young guy when they kind of start maybe figuring things out.”

Kelenic barely missed hitting another homer in the eighth inning. On his homer off Skenes, Kelenic pumped his fist as he rounded first and shouted toward the Braves’ dugout.

“Oh, he’s fiery,” Fried said. “He’s a competitor. He expects a lot out of himself and he’s extremely talented.”

The play at the plate

The Pirates, who scored their only run in the fifth against Fried on two walks and a sacrifice fly, thought they had a 2-1 lead in the 10th when ghost runner Edward Olivares advanced from second to third on a groundout and raced to the plate on a Daysbel Hernández wild pitch that sailed high to the backstop.

But the Braves challenged the call and it was overturned. Replays showed Olivares’ front foot on the slide was several inches above the plate when Hernández applied the tag to his body, after getting a perfect throw from catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who retrieved the ball quickly when it caromed off the brick wall behind home plate.

“That was great,” Snitker said of the tag. “And Travis made a great little feed right there. It was placed perfectly. And when you’re coming in to cover the plate, there’s a lot going on right there in a short period of time. Travis getting the ball and getting it in a really good spot, and Daysbel holding on to the ball — it was great.”

The walk-off hit

Before his 366-foot game-ending single off right-hander Kyle Nicolas, Duvall was 11-for-96 (.114) with one homer and 35 strikeouts in his past 27 games, or since he became a lineup regular rather than a platoon player.

Against right-handers, he had been 8-for-103 (.077) with 40 strikeouts this season before that hit, and his .226 OPS against righties remains the worst in the majors by any hitter with more than 30 at-bats against them. He still is batting just .167 overall with a .529 OPS and six home runs in 62 games, and the Braves might seek a replacement or at least a platoon partner at the trade deadline.

But Duvall has been one of the most popular Braves in the clubhouse for years, in several stints with the team including the 2021 World Series champions. And teammates say he’s hit a lot of balls hard with more than his share of bad luck (he had a 369-foot out in the seventh inning Saturday).

So when Duvall made a leaping catch on a fly ball at the wall to end the sixth inning Saturday, they were thrilled. And then when he hit a ball over the center fielder’s head for the win, they poured on the field and mobbed Duvall, celebrating with him.

“Oh, man, that was big,” d’Arnaud said. “He’s been working so hard, and for him to finally come through there — we were all saying, ‘Please, he needs this. Give it to him, give it to him.’ And he crushed it. That’s perfect.”

“You knew it was a matter of time,” Fried said. “Duvey is a hell of a player, and he’s been one for a long time. Everyone goes through rough stretches, but he comes to the field with the same attitude every day. He works his tail off.”

There haven’t been many opportunities for Duvall to be surrounded by TV cameras and smiling after games this season. He was beaming. His teammates’ words and obvious joy for him afterward had him fighting back emotions.

“We grind with each other, and they know it hasn’t been going great for me,” Duvall said. “And for them to show that kind of love there at the end of the game, it hit a special place in my heart. And then getting the text from my wife after the game – because behind the scenes, they go through it with us, they live and die by every at-bat just like we do. So it’s important for them, too.

“I’m over the moon right now.”

He smiled as he declined to share what his wife texted. As for teammates’ message to him, Duvall said: “They just said keep grinding, keep going, and just congratulated me. They know how much of a weight that one hit was off of my back. Hopefully, it can continue. Hopefully, I can continue showing up for the boys.”

(Top photo of Adam Duvall: Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)

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