Second hald surge complete: Rome Braves are SAL Champs

It sounds like a broken record, but another night has passed and yet another Rome Braves starter has hurled another impressive performance. Max Fried dealt a dandy last night, striking out 13 en route to Rome’s first South Atlantic League Championship in 13 years.

Forty-nine and one-third innings pitched, 50 strikeouts, eight walks, four earned runs, and a 5-1 record: Those are the numbers that the Rome Braves pitching staff — one who’s average age is a mere 20 years old — posted this postseason starting in the Southern Division Championship Series. Fried’s gem came one day after 19-year-old left Kolby Allard hurled his second shutout performance of the playoffs.

“I’ve been excited every morning, waking up and knowing who’s starting pitching that night,” Rome Braves manager Randy Ingle said after the 6-1 victory over Lakewood for the SAL Championship. “Fried tonight, again, he has been lights out. He struck out 13 tonight, he was on a mission. Phenomenal job.”

Fried’s previous performance came in the series finale of the Divisional Championship against Charleston last Saturday. It was a win-or-go-home situation, and Fried simply didn’t want to go home. He landed 74 of his 108 pitches for strikes en route to striking out 11 and walking just one.

Friday night in Lakewood was more of the same. Fried tied the Rome Braves single-game strikeout record set by Chuck James with 13, landing 67 of his 103 pitches for strikes. He did walk three, but allowed just one earned run, showing ice in his veins when it matter most. He allowed a leadoff single to Matt Laird, who advanced to second on a passed ball, before walking SAL home run leader Jose Pujols in the first inning. Consecutive strikeouts ended the threat, and from there on out, it was smooth sailing.

“Pretty much everything,” Ingle said of what worked for Fried. “He wasn’t that sharp starting out, but then he got in the groove. He was spotting his fastball, the breaking ball was really good, and his changeup was really, really good. It got him in that groove there. First couple of innings, it wasn’t that he struggled, but he made the pitches he had to to get out of it. Then he just got stronger and stronger.”

Fried’s surge coincided with the Rome Braves surge. Coming off a lost 2015 in which he didn’t throw a pitch in his first season as a Brave, Fried wasn’t worried about numbers in the first half. He simply wanted to get back to being Max.

“This whole first half of the season has been my adjustment period,” Fried said after a June 16 start. “I haven’t really pitched in over a year and a half. I’m getting on a schedule, and traveling all the time, it’s something you have to re-acclimate to. I feel like I’m starting to get my feet under me. I’m having fun doing it again. At the beginning I was kind of pressing, ‘you have to do this, you have to do that’. I just realize that whatever happens, happens, you aren’t going to be able to control everything that happens. So you go out there, give everything you got, be focused and let it take care of itself.”

It did take care of itself. He was named the Rome Braves Pitcher of the Month of June, going 4-1 with a 1.29 ERA while striking out 35 over 28 innings. He spent most of July back on the DL, but by the end of August was back to being Max. Each of the last four games Fried pitched were huge — two against an Augusta team the Braves were a half game up on heading into the final week of the season as well as the two series clinchers — and he came through. Most impressively, he struck out 44 over those last four outings, showing that the stuff the Braves knew Fried had when they traded for him wasn’t lost to Tommy John surgery.

Rome’s second-half surge and playoffs were powered by the well-documented turnaround of Austin Riley. The 19-year-old third basemen simply went off, hitting .289 with 22 home runs and 17 doubles in the second half, including two huge home runs in the SALCS. It wasn’t about Riley Friday night, however, as the light-hitting Alejandro Salazar led the charge with a 3-for-4 night that saw Riley combine with five other Braves to drive in a run.

“Any given night,” Ingle said of the confidence he has in every last body on his roster. “It’s somebody different. Austin Riley had a big second half for us, but it’s been different guys. That’s the way they play. It’s been a team thing. Everybody gave everything they got to the final out.”

For the full recap of the Rome Braves grand finale, head on over to Today’s Knuckleball by clicking on the link below:

Max Fried’s gem leads the Rome Braves to Titletown

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