Mon, Sep 25, 2023 3:36 PM
By PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — Baseball's best team has some major pitching concerns heading into the final week of the regular season.
Spencer Strider (19-5) and Bryce Elder (12-4) are the only two regular starters who appear certain to pitch in the NL Division Series, which starts Oct. 7.
Strider remains confident in his team, no matter who is healthy for the playoffs.
“This whole organization is something to marvel at,” he said. “It's not like it's just been 26 guys either. It's been a whole group.”
Allan Winans, who has bounced between the big leagues and Triple-A while the Braves dealt with a rash of pitching injuries this season, is among those who could get an unlikely start in the postseason.
“Obviously, I would be pretty ecstatic about the opportunity," Winans told reporters after taking the loss in the first game of a doubleheader Sunday at Washington. "To be part of this team at the crunch time of the season is obviously what you dream about.”
The Braves have earned a bye for the best-of-three wild-card round.
If Fried can recover from a lingering blister issue on his left index finger in time for the best-of-five NL Division Series, Atlanta should be able to get by with three starters. Three off days are built into the schedule if that series goes the distance.
Without Fried, the Braves would have to turn to someone they never expected to use for a playoff start.
Morton (14-12) definitely is out until at least the best-of-seven NL Championship Series, which begins Oct. 16 and would require four starters.
Should the Braves advance past the NLDS, they hope the 39-year-old right-hander will be able to return from a sprained index finger. But manager Brian Snitker called that a “best-case scenario,” indicating there's a chance Morton could be facing a lengthier absence.
These late-season health woes are a grim reminder of a year ago, when the Braves were upset by Philadelphia in the NLDS after Fried was stricken with a flu bug and Strider dealt with an oblique injury.
Both were roughed up in losses to the Phillies, surrendering a total of 11 hits and 11 runs (nine earned) in 5 2/3 innings.
“There's never a good time, as we saw last year at the end of the year," Snitker said. "It's just those hurdles you have to handle, adjustments you have to make, put things together, maybe do some things you wouldn't normally do to get through.”
A patchwork rotation is nothing new for this year's Braves, who have won 100 games for the second straight season even with two of their top starting pitchers missing extended time and the fifth slot in the rotation essentially being a season-long tryout.
Fried, the runner-up for the NL Cy Young Award in 2022, missed nearly three months with a forearm strain. He's made only 14 starts in the big leagues, going 8-1 with a 2.55 ERA.
Kyle Wright, a 21-game winner a season ago, missed nearly the entire season with a right shoulder strain. He rejoined the Braves two weeks ago but was roughed up for 10 runs in seven innings over two starts, prompting Atlanta to shift him to the bullpen for the final week of the regular season to see if he might be more effective.
Wright had a better outing Sunday at Washington, allowing one run over the final three innings after taking over for Winans in the sixth. It was Wright's first relief appearance for the Braves since 2019.
“I'm open to anything," he said. “Whatever role I can do to help us win, that's what I want to do.”
The Braves already have used 16 starting pitchers this season, and it seemed they were eyeing first-round draft pick Hurston Waldrep as another option when he was promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett for a start this past weekend.
Even though Waldrep threw 4 1/3 scoreless innings for the Stripers, and he dazzled in eight starts during a meteoric rise though four levels of the Braves' farm system, the team is unlikely to risk his future development with a hurried rush to the big leagues — especially at the biggest time of the year.
Outside of Wright, the most likely starting options for the Braves should the need arise are all rookies with limited big league experience: Winans (1-2, 4.33), Jaret Shuster (4-3, 5.64), Dylan Dodd (2-2, 7.62), AJ Smith-Shawver (1-0, 4.57) and Darius Vines (1-0, 4.40).
“We've had a lot of guys contribute this year,” Strider said. “You don't win 100 games or however many we end up winning with just 26 guys. If there's anything anybody should learn this year from this team, it takes more than 26 guys. It takes a whole organization.”
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