ATLANTA — Max Fried knew his night was about done.
So, with the final pitch of the most dominating performance of his big league career, he unleashed a 96 mph fastball.
“Just leave it all out there,” Fried said. “If he got me, he got me.”
No worries. Juan Soto swung and missed.
Fried allowed just one baserunner over seven innings — an infield single in the first — to push the Atlanta Braves a step closer to their second straight NL East title, beating Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals 4-2 in the opener of a four-game series between the division’s top teams Thursday night.
“I felt really good,” Fried said. “I know how important this series is.”
The only player to reach base against Fried (16-4) was Anthony Rendon, who beat out an infield dribbler with two outs in the first. After that, the left-hander retired the last 19 hitters he faced with nine strikeouts, needing just 90 pitches to breeze past the Nationals.
“He just seemed to have it all,” said Trea Turner, Washington’s leadoff hitter.
After Fried was lifted for a pinch hitter, Shane Green eased through the eighth allowing only a walk. Mark Melancon made things interesting in the ninth, giving up a two-run homer to Victor Robles and a single to Juan Soto that brought the potential tying run to the plate. Howie Kendrick grounded out to end the game, dropping Washington eight games back in the East.
“I gave it everything I had,” Strasburg said. “It just wasn’t good enough tonight. Sometimes that happens.”
The Braves jumped on Strasburg (16-5) for two runs in the first, sparked by Ronald Acuña Jr.’s leadoff single. He added to the lead with a mammoth homer in the fifth, launching one into the Chop House restaurant for his 37th homer. Right fielder Michael A. Taylor took only a couple of steps before stopping to watch the ball sail into the dinner crowd.
“It’s huge,” Acuña said through a translator. “We already have a playoff atmosphere that is fun to play in.”
Strasberg turned it another strong outing, giving up just four hits before he was pulled after the sixth. He walked four and struck out seven.
The wild card-leading Nationals likely needed to win at least three of four in SunTrust Park to have any chance to chasing down the Braves and avoid that dreaded wild-card playoff game. Thanks to Fried, the task got even harder.
“That was as good as it gets,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “He had it all working tonight. Throwing any pitch in any count. Got ahead. Stayed on the attack.”
The Braves jumped on Strasburg right away. Acuña started the first with a single to left-centre, snatched second with his 34th stolen base and came home on Ozzie Albies’ bloop double down the left-field line. Freddie Freeman extended the lead with a run-scoring single. Strasburg escaped further trouble by striking out Dansby Swanson with Freeman at third.
Strasburg dominated after that — until he fell behind Acuna in the fifth. The youngster received the green light on a 3-0 pitch and got every bit of Strasburg’s 94-mph fastball.
McCann added an RBI single in the eighth.
The Bringer of Rain brought another stellar defensive play.
Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson made a diving grab on Taylor’s hard-hit grounder leading off the third and threw on to first from a knee, getting the speedy runner by a half-step.
It’s becoming a rather routine play for Donaldson.
“He’s been making unbelievable plays for me all year,” Fried said. “The defence that he brings, the attitude that he brings, he’s a winner.”
Nationals: LHP Roenis Elias had to leave the game in the middle of the eighth after tweaking a hamstring. “We don’t anything definitive yet,” manager Dave Martinez said. “It got tight on him. We’ll know more tomorrow.” … OF Adam Eaton struck out as a pinch-hitter to end the eighth after missing the last two games. He’s still recovering from a painful bone bruise, the result of taking a pitch off his right knee last week. “He’s still sore,” Martinez said. “It’s a brutal area to get hit in. It’s going to take some time, but it’s getting better.”
Braves: RHP Darren O’Day is finally back in the big leagues and looking to make his first appearance in nearly 15 months. The Braves added O’Day to their expanded roster after he completed a rehab stint in the minors. He last pitched in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles on June 26, 2018, before season-ending hamstring surgery. He was traded to the Braves and expecting to return this season, only to be sidelined for much of the year by a forearm strain.
Atlanta LH Dallas Keuchel (6-5, 3.72 ERA) will go Friday looking for his fourth straight win, having allowed just three runs over 25 innings in his last four appearances. The Nationals will counter with LH Patrick Corbin (11-6, 3.19), who will be facing the Braves for the third time this season. He picked up a win while surrendering four runs in 11 innings over those two previous appearances.