HOUSTON — Max Fried had last left Minute Maid Park’s mound in frustration.
Back then, just last Wednesday, he surrendered six runs and was the losing pitcher in Game 2 of the World Series. His manager thought the outing was a fluke; Fried thought he had failed.
Whether he did or not is no longer relevant: Fried won Game 6 on Tuesday night and Atlanta captured its first World Series title in 26 years. In six innings, the left-hander allowed four hits and held a mighty Houston offense — one that had led the majors in runs, hits and batting average — scoreless. He recorded six strikeouts and walked no one in his ninth career postseason start.
And in a series where relievers found plenty of work, whether by managerial design or desperation or both, Fried did not reach 70 pitches until there were two outs in the sixth. In the end, he threw 74. Two more Atlanta pitchers, Tyler Matzek and Will Smith, finished off the Astros, who were also done in by mighty swings from Jorge Soler, Dansby Swanson and Freddie Freeman.
“I just told myself that I was going to go out there and be 100 percent me and just try to pitch and try to win a ballgame,” Fried said. “Just kind of the same mentality that I had in the second half: just go out there and keep guys off-balance, just kind of pitch unorthodox and pitch with my eyes.”
He used a slider to strike out Carlos Correa, Houston’s All-Star shortstop. Yuli Gurriel, the American League batting champion, went down on three straight fastballs. Alex Bregman, with a Silver Slugger Award on his résumé, also faltered when he faced Fried’s fastball.
“I think he’s been great,” Tom Glavine, the left-handed winning pitcher in the Game 6 that clinched the World Series for Atlanta in 1995, texted as Fried plowed through Houston’s lineup.
“Thought he made a nice subtle adjustment by using FB and changeup away tonight to keep those righties honest,” he added, referencing Fried’s fastball, the very first pitch he fired on Tuesday night.
Indeed, Fried, 27, had made clear before Game 6 that he had no intention of overhauling his approach to Houston’s lineup. He was looking to make tweaks, though he did throw harder on Tuesday night than he had at any other point in the season.
“It’s just sticking with your strengths, pitching my game and really just trusting what we see with our eyes,” he said this week. “We’re going to make adjustments. At this time of year, it’s about just getting outs. So whatever we can do to get outs is what the plan of attack is going to be.”
Atlanta’s pitching coach, Rick Kranitz, said that Fried was among the best he had seen at drawing up his own game plan.
“He knows exactly what he wants to do — exactly,” Kranitz said on the infield dirt after the game. “Now it’s time to get into the flow of the game, like a lot of starters, because if you don’t get him early, you’re probably not going to get him and he showed that tonight.”
But Fried’s night could have very ended in the first inning, when he galloped backward toward first base to help play a ground ball. He extended his right foot toward the bag — and then the right foot of Michael Brantley, who had scurried up the line, slammed into the back of Fried’s foot and onto his ankle.
It could have become a nightmare revisited for Atlanta, which lost its starting pitcher in Game 1, Charlie Morton, to a broken leg. But after a trainer evaluated Fried, Tuesday’s starter stuck around.
With two runners on, no one out and a pitcher who was, at the very least, likely to be left feeling the play, it was a gamble for Atlanta. Fried responded by striking out two of the next three hitters, and provoking a grounder from the other.
“When that happened, I think he just locked it in,” Kranitz said of the collision that, he joked, threatened to send the pitcher and his coach to the hospital together.
Fried retired the Astros in order for four consecutive innings. In the sixth, his last frame of the night, Brantley managed an infield single with two outs. Then Fried struck out Correa again.
And Smith, watching from the Atlanta bullpen, was unsurprised. He had sensed earlier Tuesday that Fried would harass the Houston lineup for as long as he was on the mound.
“If Max has a bad one, he’s more driven and really wants to get it done the next time out,” Smith said. “He had this look on his face all day. He was nice and relaxed when he first got in the clubhouse today, but he was motivated, he was driven. He looked like a different Max, honestly.”
Different enough to go from loser to winner — and World Series champion — in six days.