Atlanta’s Max Fried has recorded 18 outs in each of his last two starts, standing out in an era of openers, quick hooks and mustachioed middle men.
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ATLANTA — There are 38 metal flags running up and down the light poles above right field at Truist Park, saluting standout seasons for the home team. A dozen flags signify titles won before the modern World Series, which seems like résumé padding for the franchise now known as the Atlanta Braves.
But there they are, starting in 1872, when a slim right-hander named Al Spalding started all 48 games for the Braves’ ancestors, the Boston Red Stockings of the National Association. He piled up 404⅔ innings that season, and two years later topped 600.
Max Fried is now Spalding’s spiritual progeny. On Saturday he worked six innings in the opener of the National League Championship Series, a 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fried also worked six innings in the last round, against the Milwaukee Brewers. This is a major accomplishment in the modern playoffs.
“I think six innings in the postseason is huge for a guy, just the energy they expend mentally and physically,” Manager Brian Snitker said. “I feel like we have three guys that can do that.”
The others are Ian Anderson and Charlie Morton, and the Dodgers have three of their own in Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias. On the American League side, though, the rotations are falling apart.
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The Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros used eight pitchers apiece in Game 1 of the A.L.C.S., and the Dodgers used eight on Saturday. That was out of necessity, though, because Urias and Scherzer had just pitched on Thursday to help close out the Giants in San Francisco.
“Clayton Kershaw would be starting this game; unfortunately, he’s hurt right now,” Scherzer said on Saturday afternoon. “So this isn’t by design. As a whole, we looked to have four starters going into the postseason, but we don’t. And so we’re just trying to navigate this as best as possible.”
The Dodgers have so much depth that three Cy Young Award winners are off the playoff roster: Kershaw is recovering from a forearm injury; David Price was dropped for this round after struggling down the stretch; and Trevor Bauer is under investigation for sexual assault. Each of those pitchers is making more than $30 million this season.
In Game 1, a collection of mustachioed middlemen followed the opener and throttled Atlanta, which fanned 14 times without a walk. Freddie Freeman, Atlanta’s sunny superstar, whiffed four times against four different pitchers. No matter: Third baseman Austin Riley, who had homered earlier, drilled a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth.
The game was played crisply, mainly because all those pitchers had good stuff and knew it. They filled up the strike zone, nearly making this the first game in N.L.C.S. history without a walk (alas, the Dodgers drew one in the ninth). There were four stolen bases — even a sacrifice bunt! — and the whole thing seemed shorter than its 3 hours 4 minutes. That is when baseball is at its best.
The A.L.C.S., meanwhile, has been a mess, a bloated double feature with a running time of 495 minutes. Boston’s Chris Sale, who returned from Tommy John surgery in August, has made two playoff starts and gotten nine outs. Besides the Red Sox’ Nathan Eovaldi — a sound bet for five innings, if rarely for six — no starter on either team would be called durable.
Some of this is understandable, natural attrition at the end of a long season that followed a very short one. But part of it is on purpose. Pitchers aren’t supposed to be Al Spalding, or even Al Leiter, anymore.
“You’re limiting even your best to 18 outs now,” said the former pitcher Ron Darling, who is calling the N.L.C.S. for TBS. “So if we lower our expectations from 27 outs, then a four-inning start in the postseason is a very good start.”
Teams focus more intently than ever on matchups, deciding in advance whose pitch mix might disrupt a particular hitter. With so many off-days built into the October schedule, most relievers are available every game, and managers — with heavy input from the front office — seem eager to deploy them. Even veteran starters understand the difference.
“As players, all we want to do is win, so if you tell us this is going to help us win, yeah, we’re all on board, let’s go for it,” said Scherzer, who allowed one run in the N.L. wild-card game but was lifted in the fifth inning.
“To speak on the other side of the coin, from a fan’s perspective and baseball as a whole, if you say: ‘Is this something that we want the game to go into? Do we want to see this in the regular season?’ My answer is no. No, you don’t,” Scherzer said. “You want to see starting pitchers. You want to see starting pitchers pitch deep. I think that’s best for the fans, best for the players, everybody involved. I think that’s how we all envisioned the games.”
He added: “But when you get down to elimination games, you get into postseason games, you do whatever it takes to win. So, to me, I think this is more of a question in the off-season if we want to address it.”
Scherzer, who is part of the executive subcommittee for the players’ union, likes the idea of a rule change that could theoretically limit the use of an opener by tying the starting pitcher to the designated hitter. Called the “double hook” by the Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark, the rule would mandate that a team lose its designated hitter as soon as it pulls its starter.
The viability of that idea, and others, will be debated during off-season negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. But as sensible as the opener can be as a strategy, it is still a jarring innovation.
Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts, who used Corey Knebel as an opener for Game 5 of the division series and Game 1 of the N.L.C.S., resisted the idea when the Tampa Bay Rays first used it in 2018. Beginning a game with a reliever seemed to be against baseball’s spirit.
“I hated it,” Roberts said. “It wasn’t baseball. I like to see the starters, and starters go deep. But when you sit in this chair, you’re trying to win games. That’s the bottom line. So it doesn’t matter how appealing it is or what it is. The goal is to prevent runs.”
The Dodgers have done better than any other team, with a 3.01 earned run average in the regular season and a 2.05 mark across their first seven playoff games. Their problem now is that Atlanta is also rich in pitching. It is a franchise tradition.
“It’s just kind of the way I was raised in the game,” Snitker said. “I came up with the Braves here and we were all about starting pitching. I don’t know any better.”
The N.L. teams have the arms to keep this series entertaining — or at least to keep it from morphing into the slog we saw in Houston. Just don’t expect the starters, even the really good ones, to stick around too long.