Max Fried had nowhere to pitch 10 years ago. Now he’s center stage at World Series

Max Fried wasn’t sure what to do next.

It was 10 years ago, in the summer before his senior season of high school, that Fried’s world got turned upside down.

The private Van Nuys high school where the left-handed pitcher had become a top draft prospect as an underclassman, Montclair Prep, announced it would be dropping its sports programs, effective immediately. Just weeks before his final school year, Fried suddenly found himself without a team.

“I had nowhere to go,” he said.

A decade later, it’s a story that puts his present predicament in perspective.

On Tuesday night, the now 27-year-old Fried will pitch in the biggest game of his life, taking the mound in Game 6 of the World Series to try to close out the Atlanta Braves’ first title since 1995.

To do it, he will have to respond from back-to-back poor outings in which his strong start to the postseason was derailed by a five-run start in Game 5 of the NLCS against the Dodgers and a six-run clunker in Game 2 against the Houston Astros.

“Any time that you go out there and you don’t perform the way that you want, you don’t win, you want to go back out there and redeem yourself,” Fried said Monday. “I’m ready to go out there and leave it all on the field. It’s probably going to be my last outing of the year, so there’s nothing to hold back.”

Back in 2011, he used a similar mindset to propel his career after the Montclair Prep shutdown. As he looked for places to transfer, he zeroed in on the best, hoping to pitch for a powerhouse Harvard-Westlake program that included two other future big leaguers, Lucas Giolito and Jack Flaherty, on its staff.

There was only one problem. The Studio City prep academy didn’t usually accept transfer students, especially not for athletic reasons alone.

Max Fried pitches for Harvard-Westlake during a Southern Section Division 2 playoff game against Ventura in 2012.

(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

“Our school is pretty exclusive in terms of academics,” said Matt LaCour, the school’s former baseball coach and current athletic director. “We don’t really take transfers.”

Still, Fried wanted to make his case.

Giolito, who had befriended Fried on the prep baseball circuit, helped put him and his family in touch with LaCour about how to get the process started. The coach directed them to the admissions department, which was wowed by the teenager’s nearly flawless academic resume. And after factoring in the other unique circumstances beyond Fried’s control, the academy decided to make a rare exception and let the pitcher in.

Suddenly, he not only had a place to play his senior season but one that would help solidify his stock as a soon-to-be first-round pick.

“In the middle of summer to scramble for a school and to have them be able to kind of take me in when I had nowhere to go,” Fried said recently, “it obviously meant a lot.”

Of course, almost any school in the Southland would have been happy to have Fried’s services.

But at Harvard-Westlake, the quiet left-hander flourished.

“He was submerged into a culture that had really good players around him all the time,” LaCour said. “When you’re conditioning, when you’re going through your drill sets as a pitcher, and you have Jack Flaherty and Lucas Giolito right there next to you, you get pushed. That’s gonna make any player with talent rise to a different level. And that’s what we saw from Max.”

Fried’s fastball took a jump, LaCour said, going from a solid upper-80 mph option to a devastating mid-90s weapon. His promising curveball — a trademark pitch he tried modeling after Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s — continued to get sharper. Over the course of the season, the coaching staff started pushing to attack hitters in different ways too, sensing the potential his evolving talent presented.

“The running joke at our place that year was, the only person who didn’t think Max had the best stuff was Max,” LaCour said. “Stuff-wise, when you put him against Jack and Lucas that year, he was just further along. … But at times he didn’t want to pitch off his fastball like we wanted him to. He wanted to be a little bit more, hit the corners, too careful. So it was a constant battle to get him to be more aggressive.”

The lessons, however, eventually started to pay off.

After being drafted seventh overall by the San Diego Padres in 2012, then traded to the Braves as part of a deal for Justin Upton in 2014, Fried has blossomed into one of baseball’s top burgeoning left-handers, posting a 3.35 ERA over the last three seasons while averaging almost a strikeout per inning.

This year, he was one of the majors’ most aggressive pitchers too, throwing the ball in the strike zone at a 52.4% rate that was well above average.

Sometimes it backfired, such as in Game 2 against the Astros, when Houston strung together five well-placed singles to break the game open with a four-run second inning.

But even on that night, he continued to show growth, bouncing back to throw three more strong innings that gave the Braves’ bullpen some much-needed rest.

In the same way LaCour watched Fried adapt to new surroundings in high school, Atlanta manager Brian Snitker has seen the left-hander embrace the pressure that has accompanied the run-up to Game 6 as well.

The Braves, after all, are trying to snap a 26-year title drought. They’re trying to prevent what was once a series they led 3-1 from reaching a Game 7. They will be banking on Fried to forget about his two recent low points to deliver a highlight that would be remembered forever.

And 10 years after not knowing exactly where his career would take him, there’s nowhere else he’d rather be Tuesday night.

“I can just tell during the games, talking to him the last couple nights on the bench, and I think he’s really looking forward to this opportunity,” Snitker said. “He’s grown so much, he’s matured, he’s been through these games before. I think he’s really looking forward to the challenge.”

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