Max Fried had an up-and-down start to his first season back on the mound after Tommy John surgery, but he ended it in some kind of groove.
The Braves' No. 11 prospect recorded a career-high 13 strikeouts while allowing one run on four hits and three walks over seven innings as visiting Rome won the South Atlantic League Championship with a 6-1 victory at Lakewood.
The 22-year-old left-hander notched his fourth consecutive start with double-digit strikeouts and tied the single-game team record set by Chuck James on June 20, 2004.
"My plan of attack was to really trust my catcher, Jonathan Morales, and attack early, get ahead as much as I can and put them away when I can," Fried said. "It was one of those things where I was getting to two strikes and my curveball was on today -- I was able to put it in the dirt. Just trusting Jonathan back there was the biggest peace of mind, knowing I could throw the ball anywhere and he'd keep it in front. Being able to put all my trust in him was the biggest key."
The 2012 first-round pick was 0-2 with a 5.21 ERA through May, but he went 8-5 with a 2.47 ERA the rest of the way, He also won both of his playoff starts while allowing two runs over 14 2/3 innings.
"It's just one of those things -- I have to give credit to our pitching coach [Dan Meyer]; he told me to just be my old self again," Fried said. "I tried to be something else and do something that wasn't natural of my delivery. [He] hammered home good rhythm, and it's clicked the last couple starts. I got my curveball back that had been missing the entire year and I've been able to trust it.
"I was trying to make it do something it's not supposed to do. I was forcing something that wasn't natural to the kind of pitcher I am. Went back to what was natural and not worrying about what kind of break it had, just throwing it with an aggressive mentality, and hopefully good things happen."
After allowing a run in the fourth, the California native stranded runners at the corners by striking out Emmanuel Marrero. Fried allowed one baserunner the rest of the way.
"I left the changeup up and [Grenny Cumana] put a good swing on it and hit it to the wall," he said. "I had [Braves No. 13 prospect] Austin [Riley] and [first baseman] Carlos Castro come to the mound; they told me, 'This isn't a big deal, try to limit the damage and we have to score to win.' I like to think me giving up a run sparked the offense since we scored three after that."
In the following inning, Morales led off with a bunt single and Castro singled to center two batters later to put runners on first and third. Alejandro Salazar ripped an RBI single to center to drive in Morales, and Braves No. 19 prospect Anfernee Seymour doubled to right to score Castro. A sacrifice fly by Braves' No. 17 prospect Ronald Acuna brought home Salazar to make it 3-1.
"I told them, 'You have to score one to win anyway and just have to stay focused and do our thing,'" manager Randy Ingle said. "The guys did it, and they've been battling to the end the whole year. They don't panic and that was the case again tonight."
Fried dealt with a recurring blister that landed him on the disabled list twice in July. He allowed five earned runs over four innings in his first start back on Aug. 14 at Hickory, but he didn't give up more than three earned runs in any of his final five outings.
"He's got big league stuff," Ingle said. "Meyer did a great job with him. ... It's not just him but all of the [pitchers], they really turned a corner and improved tremendously. We have a lot of pitchers on this staff that have big league stuff, and you'll see many of them pitching for the Braves in the World Series one day. They've all grown up, mentally and emotionally -- even at their age, they've grown up a lot and they have the feeling of what it takes."
In addition to Fried, Rome boasted Kolby Allard, Atlanta's fourth-ranked prospect, seventh-ranked prospect Mike Soroka and No. 10 prospect Touki Toussaint in a stacked rotation. Those starters were a big reason Rome won its first South Atlantic League title since 2003 -- its first year as a team.
"It's been an amazing ride," Ingle said. "I've been with them for 38 years and I've managed championship games and all, but this club is very special. Not only the youth on this team but the palette -- these guys just kept working after the first half, going 15 [games] under [.500].
"They really improved in the second half to turn things around. … It's been a pleasure for me after being in the game for a few years to watch this group grow and improve the way they did, it's hard to explain. ... I think we're going to see a lot of these guys in the big leagues in the future. ... They got a taste of what it takes to win."
Salazar went 3-for-4 with two runs scored and Morales was 2-for-4 with a double.
Lakewood starter Harold Arauz allowed three runs on five hits with four strikeouts over 4 1/3 innings.