ARLINGTON, Texas – For a while, it was the pitching duel nobody saw coming. Ten runs later, the Braves came out of it one win from the World Series.
Bryse Wilson, a national unknown making his first postseason start, outpitched three-time Cy Young winner and generational lefty Clayton Kershaw on a windy Thursday evening in Texas. The Braves then used a six-run sixth to beat the Dodgers 10-2 in Game 4 and take a 3-1 lead in the National League Championship Series.
“It feels good,” manager Brian Snitker said. “We still have a lot of work to do. You know how quick things can turn. I was really proud of the guys for how they bounced back from yesterday. ... These guys are resilient, man. They did a great job turning the page from last night.”
The teams played to a 1-1 draw entering the bottom of the sixth, which opened with the top of the Braves' lineup for the third time. Ronald Acuna beat out an infield single and advanced to second on a throwing error. Freddie Freeman doubled off Kershaw to score the go-ahead run. Marcell Ozuna followed with another double that scored the Braves' third run and ended Kershaw’s night.
Brusdar Graterol replaced Kershaw and retired Travis d’Arnaud on a liner before Ozzie Albies singled. Dansby Swanson ripped a double to left that scored Ozuna and Albies. Austin Riley’s single scored Swanson.
Graterol was removed after facing only four hitters. Victor Gonzalez allowed Cristian Pache’s single to score the sixth and final run. Kershaw was charged four runs on seven hits across five innings. He exited without registering an out in the sixth, then helplessly watched as his team fell into a 3-1 series deficit.
The six-run inning tied the second-highest total for one frame in Braves postseason history. The 1958 Milwaukee Braves scored seven runs in the first inning of Game 2 against the Yankees in the World Series.
“Every hit relaxes the next guy,” Snitker said. “It’s amazing how that works. Hitting is so much mental.” The Braves scored six or more runs in an inning six times in the regular season, tied with Philadelphia for the most in the majors.
As Kershaw’s final frame unraveled, Wilson enjoyed comfortably from the dugout. His performance was completed at the top of the inning: The 22-year-old allowed one run on one hit over six innings, joining Michael Wacha as the only rookie pitchers in postseason history to achieve such in their first start. The Braves were desperate for even an adequate outing. “If he got four innings I would’ve been happy,” Snitker said. Wilson gave them the best start of his career.
Before the sixth, Wilson and Kershaw made one mistake each. Edwin Rios put one of Wilson’s few ill-placed fastballs into the right-field seats. Ozuna put Kershaw’s slider two rows up in left field. Kershaw labored more than Wilson, who pounded the strike zone with confidence only seen in flashes across his previous 15 career appearances (seven starts).
"To be able to do it against somebody as well established as Clayton Kershaw is, it’s a great honor to be able to pitch against him,” Wilson said. “I was super happy to be able to get the team the win and one step closer to the World Series.”
One night after giving up a horrendous 11-run inning, the Braves looked exactly like the team that opened its postseason with seven consecutive victories. The starter kept baseball’s best offense silent. The offense erupted for one of its explosive innings. The bullpen, while not perfect, handled the rest. The Braves moved to 8-1 this postseason while showing the historic misfortune of Wednesday was already well in the rear-view mirror.
Leading the Braves' attack was Ozuna, who went 4-for-5 with two homers, a double and four RBIs. He became the 16th player in postseason history to record two homers and four hits in a game. He’s the first Brave with a multi-homer postseason game since Chipper Jones in 2001. His 11 total bases set a Braves postseason record.
Ozuna’s lengthy availability last winter proved perhaps the most important development to the Braves' season. When they opted against re-signing Josh Donaldson, Ozuna was the best power bat still out there. He declined the Cardinals' qualifying offer in hopes of a multi-year deal, and after sitting in free agency for months, the slugger settled for a one-year pact with the Braves.
It took a year longer than he hoped, but that multi-year deal is coming his way in around a month. The Braves will cross that bridge later.
Back to Thursday: The Dodgers, who lost only 17 times in the 60-game regular season, have lost to the Braves three times in four tries. To avoid the reality of another October without a ring, Los Angeles must win three in a row. Otherwise, this Dodgers team might be the most disappointing of all their recent clubs.
The Braves lost three consecutive games only once this season, when they lost a season-high four straight from Aug. 10-14. They’ll have aces Max Fried and Ian Anderson for games 6 and 7, respectively, if it comes to it.
“One game at a time,” reliever Chris Martin said. “Do what we’ve been doing. Yesterday was a crazy day, but you turn the page and play the next day. That’s the same way we’ll play these next games. Just one game, one pitch at a time. That’s a good ballclub over there.”
National attention will center on the Dodgers facing another postseason flop, but perhaps it should focus more on these Braves, who check every box of not only a World Series contender, but a title favorite. The Braves' lone weakness – rotation depth – outdid the greatest pitcher of a generation Thursday. The Braves and Dodgers entered the series with equal strengths - offense and bullpen - but following four games, the Braves have looked significantly better in both areas.
It doesn’t feel like the Dodgers are letting a series slip away. It feels like the Braves are taking it from them.
No roadblock fazes the Braves, who’ve endured everything from their MVP battling COVID-19 to never-ending rotation losses to another historically horrible first inning of a postseason game. It hasn’t mattered. Sometimes, it’s just your year. That can’t be said about this team quite yet, but at this point, it’s difficult to suggest otherwise.
“Today, we came in with the same energy and gave it our best,” Ozuna said. That’s the most important thing. To come in happy, give my best to my teammates and pump it up."
The Braves haven’t announced their Game 5 starter yet - it might be a pure bullpen game - but perpetual uncertainty hasn’t slowed them since the truncated season opened July 24. The one thing everybody does know: The Braves are one win away from an NL pennant and five wins away from a championship.