On paper, it looked like a mismatch: The Dodgers' starting pitcher was a three-time Cy Young Award winner with 175 major-league wins, while the Braves' starter was a rookie with three wins.
But on the mound, where it counts, the Braves' Bryse Wilson outpitched the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw.
Wilson, a 22-year-old right-hander whose parents were in the stands at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, worked six brilliant innings Thursday night in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. He allowed one run and one hit. He struck out five and walked one.
It was, he said afterward, the way such a game has played out in his dreams for most of his life.
“Yeah, 100 percent,” he said. “To be able to do it against somebody as well-established as Clayton Kershaw is, that’s a great honor to be able to pitch against him. I’m just super happy I was able to get the team a win and one step closer to the World Series.”
The Braves couldn’t have known they’d get such a performance from Wilson in his first postseason appearance. But several hours before the game, manager Brian Snitker suggested something special was within the realm of possibility.
“If Bryse throws the way he’s capable of, it could be really good,” Snitker said.
Also pregame, Snitker called Wilson “another kid with a high ceiling,” adding: “I’ve seen some really good improvement the last month. It’s just like a lot of these guys. They’re young pitchers that are still trying to find their way, figure out who they are. They’ve all got good stuff with limited experience.”
Asked about Wilson’s performance after the game, Snitker said: “Wow. That’s about all I can say.”
Then the manager said more: “He was in complete control. The changeup was a really good pitch for him. He was getting the fastball in on them. He had a really good look about him. He had a good tempo, and his stuff was live.”
Wilson didn’t look like a pitcher who had made just seven career big-league starts and only two this season, both in the last week of September. He didn’t look like a pitcher who had spent most of the season at the Braves' alternate training site in Gwinnett County. He didn’t look like a guy who hadn’t pitched in a game in 18 days.
Instead, from his first pitch of the night, he looked comfortable and confident under the bright lights of the postseason, completely unfazed by the biggest game of his life.
The day before, Wilson had been asked by the AJC if he could’ve imagined, while toiling at the alternate site most of the summer, that he’d wind up as the starting pitcher in NLCS Game 4.
“Not in a million years,” he answered.
But he looked Thursday night like he belonged on this stage and knew that he belonged.
With a 96-mph fastball, a sinker, a changeup, an occasional curveball and a fearless willingness to attack the strike zone, he retired the Dodgers' first six batters of the game in order.
“Once I got out there and threw the first pitch, I felt calm, cool and collected,” he said later.
After Edwin Rios led off the third inning with a solo home run, Wilson immediately shook it off and retired 12 of the next 13 batters. Other than Rios, the only Dodger to reach base against him was Max Muncy on a two-out walk in the fourth inning.
In the fifth, Wilson struck out the side on 12 pitches, getting Cody Bellinger looking on a 95-mph four-seam fastball, Rios looking on a 94-mph sinker and Enrique Hernandez swinging on a 94-mph four-seamer.
In the sixth, deeper into the game than he went in either of his two regular-season starts, Wilson again retired the Dodgers in order. His night’s work was done in 74 efficient pitches, 50 of them strikes.
The score was tied 1-1 when Wilson left the game to a hug from Snitker. The Braves were so moved by his performance that they exploded for six runs in the bottom of the sixth, knocking Kershaw out of the game and putting Wilson in position to get the win. Kershaw allowed four runs on seven hits in five-plus innings. The Braves won 10-2 to take a three-games-to-one lead in the best-of-seven series and move within one win of the World Series.
Immediately after the game, Wilson – who like all of the Braves is playing the postseason within a “bubble” because of the coronavirus pandemic -- saw his parents from a distance.
“Them being here means the absolute world to me,” he said. "It’s a huge sacrifice for them. My brother has got a game Saturday, so they’re going to have to fly home to go watch that. The sacrifices they’ve made now and even more so when I was growing up means the absolute world to me.
“I was a little bit too far in the distance, but I could just tell (what they were saying postgame): ‘I love you. We’re proud of you.’ Just that is enough. It’s plenty.”
Wilson, from Hillsborough, N.C., was the third consecutive rookie to start in this series for the Braves, following Ian Anderson (who pitched four scoreless innings in Game 2) and Kyle Wright (who allowed seven runs and got only two outs in Game 3).
Wilson, who brought a career ERA of 5.91 into Game 4, was the Braves' fourth-round draft pick in 2016. He made his big-league debut at age 20 in an August 2018 spot start against Pittsburgh, pitching five scoreless innings. He made two other big-league appearances in 2018 (both in relief) and six appearances (four starts) in 2019.
He shuttled back and forth between the alternate training site and the Braves' roster several times during the shortened 2020 regular season, but each stint with the big-league team was brief. He appeared in six games, posting a 4.02 ERA across 15-2/3 innings. His two starts came as a late-September fill-in for Cole Hamels, whose season was shut down by shoulder fatigue.
On Sept. 22, Wilson pitched a confidence-boosting five scoreless innings against Miami, allowing three hits in the Braves' NL East-clinching win. He started again in the regular-season finale Sept. 27 against Boston, allowing one run on five hits in three innings.
He saved his best for the NLCS.
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