Max Fried and three more struggling stars who will shape whether Atlanta or Houston wins 2021 World Series

ATLANTA — Atlanta’s baseball club failed to wrap up the World Series in Atlanta, despite taking a quick 4-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning of Game 5 and holding a 3-1 series lead. 

Lots of Atlanta fans are experiencing mild stages of panic right about now, recalling how those brilliant Braves teams of the 1990s always seemed to somehow figure out a way to lose — except in 1995 — in October. And I think it’s safe to say a lot of sports fans remember a championship football game that featured an epic collapse.

So, yeah, maybe Braves fans are skeptical, now that the series has shifted back to Houston. It’s hard to blame them. 

Today, let’s take a look at four players who could play a huge role in how the rest of the World Series plays out. 

Atlanta starter Max Fried

It’s been a minute since Max Fried has pitched like Max Fried, hasn’t it? This is a guy with a 2.84 ERA and 3.26 FIP over his past 39 regular-season starts, and he only allowed two earned runs in his first two playoff starts, covering 12 innings. But his last two outings — against the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLCS and in Game 2 of the World Series — have not been great. And that’s putting it mildly. In those two starts, he’s given up 15 hits and 11 runs in 9 2/3 innings and the Braves lost both games, in contests that weren’t particularly close. 

It certainly could be a fatigue issue. Not just for Fried, but all of the starting pitchers. It’s been a long season, after an exceptionally short season. Fried threw 165 2/3 regular-season innings in 2019 and matched that total — exactly, strangely — in 2021. But in between, he threw just 79 2/3 (counting regular and postseason) in the pandemic-curtailed 2020 season. Add his postseason totals this month, and he’s up to 191 1/3 for 2021, which is a sharp uptick on what’s still a young arm. 

He’ll be throwing on full rest in Game 6, which is good. The early innings have been trouble lately. Against the Dodgers, he gave up three runs in the second and another in the third. Against the Astros, he gave up one in the first and four in the second. The single runs aren’t great, of course, but they’re not the biggest issue.

“Obviously, I’m not happy about it. Playoffs is a big momentum game,” Fried said after his Game 2 start. “You got to do everything you can to keep the crooked number off the scoreboard. At the end of the day, they put up four runs in that inning. You need to do better next time, just making pitches, getting out of it.”

If the Braves are going to wrap up the World Series title, they’ll need Fried to avoid those crooked numbers. Atlanta pitchers didn’t avoid them in Game 5; Houston scored two in the second, two in the third and three in the fifth. 

Houston third baseman Alex Bregman

The double by Houston’s third baseman in the second inning was vintage Alex Bregman. When he’s right, he can spray line drives all over the field, and he smashed this particular 3-1 pitch the opposite way into the right-center gap. When he’s right, he comes through in the biggest moments, and this was a doozy — the Astros trailed 3-1 in the World Series and 4-0 in the game, and had two runners on base with one out. This was exactly what Astros fans have been waiting to see from Bregman all series. 

“From the moment we scored those two runs, we said, all right, it’s time to go,” Carlos Correa said. “Let’s go. Let’s put great at-bats together. Let’s fight. Let’s battle. Eventually, we ended up scoring all those runs and have a great game.”

Maybe this was the beginning of the old Bregman at the plate. Not so fast. With runners on first and third in the third inning, he flew out to end the inning. He was intentionally walked in the fifth. In the seventh, he came up with a runner on second and popped up on a center-cut fastball, a pitch he might normally hit over the bleachers — when he’s right.

After a ground-out to open the ninth, Bregman’s average for the World Series sits at .111, with a .394 OPS. That second-inning double was only his third extra-base hit of the entire postseason, spanning 66 plate appearances. Baker dropped him from the third spot in the lineup down to No. 7. And no matter where he’s batting in the order in Game 6, the Astros need him to produce like a three-hole hitter.

Atlanta second baseman Ozzie Albies

Ozzie Albies is Atlanta’s wildly talented second baseman who is coming off his second All-Star season; he collected 40 doubles, 30 homers and 20 stolen bases during the regular season, to go with 106 RBIs and 103 runs scored. Consistency hasn’t always been his thing, though, as evidenced by his .310 on-base percentage in 2021, a precipitous drop from his .352 mark in 2019. And he was not great at the plate in October. 

He had a pair of hits in Game 1 against the Astros — both infield singles he beat out — but is batting just .077 since then, with five strikeouts and just one hit in 16 PAs. He’s not been competitive in several of the at-bats, chasing pitches out of the zone or swinging awkwardly at pitches in the strike zone he was fooled on. 

Simply put, Albies has to be better in Houston if Atlanta’s going to avoid letting a sizable World Series lead slip away. He’s the No. 3 hitter in the lineup, wedged between Freddie Freeman and Austin Riley, so he’s seeing pitches. A little more selectivity might work wonders. 

Houston starter Luis Garcia

The rookie is starting on three days’ rest, which isn’t ideal but the Astros don’t have many options. In an ideal world, José Urquidy — who was solid in his Game 2 start — would have started Game 6 for Houston, but he was pressed into service in Game 5, the potential elimination game, when starter Framber Valdez faltered early. Urquidy only threw 14 pitches in his one scoreless inning before he was replaced by a pinch-hitter — Marwin Gonzalez delivered a huge two-RBI single in the fifth, as the seventh Houston batter to step to the plate in the inning — but he’s not a reliever and bouncing back for extended work is a big ask. 

“When you’re down 3-1, you’ve just got to kind of pull out all the stops to your rotation. If a guy’s tired, it really doesn’t matter because your next step is home, and, like, we weren’t ready to go home,” manager Dusty Baker said. “All the guys gutted it out and gave us all that they had, including Urquidy. We thought Urquidy could not — at that point, you didn’t want to trade runs with him. You wanted to shut him down to give you the chance to come back.”

It’s not that starting on short rest will be simple for Garcia, which is why we’re talking about him now. He was not good in his first two playoff starts — he allowed five earned runs in both and pitched a total of 3 2/3 innings. His second start against the Red Sox in the ALCS was outstanding; he didn’t allow a hit until the sixth inning. Garcia only allowed one run in his lone World Series start, but that was more a testament to his ability to work out of trouble than his sharp stuff. In 3 2/3 innings, Garcia allowed three hits and four walks. 

With the travel day on Monday, Baker should have plenty of options in his bullpen, but if Garcia can do two things — avoid a crooked number early and get into the fifth inning — the Astros would be thrilled. 

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