The 2020 season started with a question the Atlanta Braves would be happy to answer: Can they be the best team in the National League not named the Los Angeles Dodgers? But two-thirds of the way into the season, after another injury to a key pitcher, the question for the Braves is one they fear — can they even hold onto first place in the NL East?
Atlanta lost Max Fried on Tuesday when he was sent to the IL with back spasms. The 26-year-old lefty had assumed the role of ace after the Braves lost Mike Soroka for the season with an Achilles injury. Fried has looked every bit the ace too — going 6-0 with a 1.98 ERA in nine starts.
Fried isn’t done for the season. GM Alex Anthopoulos said he’s hoping Fried could be back by Sept. 18. A 10-day DL stint? The Braves might be OK. Anything more than that and Atlanta’s postseason hopes could be in doubt. And we know how back injuries can linger for pitchers.
If you look at the Braves’ roster, it’s clear this isn’t just another pitching injury — baseball’s full of those this season. This is an already sparse Braves rotation losing its most important remaining arm.
• Soroka, the NL Rookie of the Year runner-up, is gone.
• Felix Hernandez, even though he was a reclamation projected, opted out before the start of the season.
• Cole Hamels, another veteran offseason hope, hasn’t pitched yet.
• Mike Foltynewicz, an All-Star not that long ago, was swiftly DFA’d at the start of the season.
It’s safe to say this season hasn’t gone as planned for the Braves. And now the loss of Fried is going to show just how dire this thing might be. Take Fried out of the mix and Braves starters have some numbers that aren’t all that impressive: 3-10 with a 6.91 ERA. The names on the lineup card while Fried is out? Josh Tomlin, Tommy Milone, Robbie Erlin, Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson. It’s not awe-inspiring.
The hope at this point might be Hamels, who Anthopoulos said could be activated this week. The 36-year-old is a recognizable name and is coming off a respectable season with the Cubs in 2019 (7-7 with a 3.81 ERA) but this isn’t prime Cole Hamels we’re talking about.
We’ll stop the doom-and-gloom to remind you that the Braves *are* in first place. They have a two-game lead over the Phillies and 3 1/2 over the Marlins. Both of those teams have their own problems, so the Braves aren’t exactly dead men walking. The offense is good enough to keep them in games.
Chalk this up to baseball showing us how fragile predictions and expectations are. Instead of hoping for an upset of the Dodgers and a possible World Series berth, the Braves will have claw their way out of the expanded NL playoffs like everybody else.
A health Max Fried sure would help.
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