The rookie with only seven career major-league starts outpitched Clayton Kershaw, the future Hall of Famer with three Cy Young awards and 175 career wins.
Wilson, a 22-year-old right-hander, worked six phenomenal innings as the Braves took a three-games-to-one NLCS lead with a 10-2 win. He allowed one run and one hit. He struck out five and walked one. He was in thorough command.
“Wow. That’s about all I can say,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I mean, you kidding me? That kid stepped up.”
Suffice to say Wilson’s place in the Braves' pantheon of pitching prospects soared.
It was, Wilson said, 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 selected Wilson, who played baseball and football at Orange High School in Hillsborough, N.C., in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, the No. 109 overall selection. The pitcher-stockpiling Braves had selected four pitchers ahead of him in that draft: Anderson, Joey Wentz (traded to Detroit for Shane Greene last year), Kyle Muller (still a prospect in the Braves' farm system) and Drew Harrington (released in 2018).
The Braves' scouting department fully intended to land Wilson, but correctly, albeit nervously, assessed that he’d still be available in the fourth round. He was lured from his commitment to a baseball scholarship at North Carolina with a $1.2 million bonus, more than double the assigned value of that spot in the draft.
Wilson became the first of the Braves' 2016 draft picks to reach the big leagues when he debuted in 2018, pitching five scoreless innings in a spot start at Pittsburgh. But he made only two additional big-league appearances in 2018 (both in relief), six in 2019 (four starts) and six in 2020 (two starts). He carried a career ERA of 5.91 into his postseason debut.
He shuttled between the Braves’ roster and the team’s alternate training site in Gwinnett County several times during the shortened 2020 regular season, but logged only 15-2/3 innings with the big-league team. His two starts came in the final week of the season as a fill-in for Cole Hamels, who was shut down because of shoulder fatigue.
It was the first of those starts, Sept. 22 against Miami, that got the Braves to thinking about Wilson as a potential postseason starter. He displayed some changes in approach and repertoire that he had made over the summer and pitched five scoreless innings as the Braves clinched the NL East championship.
“I was able to establish a huge level of confidence (from that game) that I feel like I didn’t have before,” Wilson said. “That’s why I was able to do what I was (Thursday).”
Having success in a regular-season game against the Marlins is one thing. Having it in the NLCS against the Dodgers, MLB’s highest-scoring team this season, is another.
With a four-seam fastball that topped out at 96 mph, a sinker, a change-up, an occasional curveball and a fearless willingness to attack the strike zone, Wilson retired 18 of the 20 Dodgers batters he faced. One homered. One walked. The rest did nothing.
“Oh, man, he did a heck of a job,” veteran Braves reliever Chris Martin said. “He went out there and competed. I honestly don’t think he was too worried that he was facing Kershaw. … It was awesome to watch, really.”
“Once I got out there and threw the first pitch," Wilson said, “I felt calm, cool and collected.”
From the first pitch of his first postseason game, he looked like he belonged on that stage and, moreover, knew he belonged.
“He’s a football player,” Snitker said, referring to Wilson’s high school days. “That mentality those guys bring is good.”
The pitcher’s parents, Chad and Tracey Wilson, traveled from North Carolina to Arlington, Texas, for the game. Afterward, they congratulated their son from a distance as he, like the rest of the Braves, is spending the postseason in the “bubble” MLB implemented because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Them being here means the absolute world to me,” Wilson said. "My brother (Payton, a linebacker at N.C. State) has got a game Saturday, so they’re going to have to fly home and go watch that. The sacrifices they’ve made now, and even more so when I was growing up, just means the absolute world to me.
“I was a little bit too far in the distance, but I could tell (what they were saying after the game): ‘I love you. We’re proud of you.’ Just that is enough. It’s plenty.”
Wilson’s performance came two nights after Anderson, selected 106 picks earlier in that 2016 draft, pitched four scoreless innings as the starter in the Braves' Game 2 win.
“It’s a testament to our scouting and player development – how strong it is, how strong it has always been,” Snitker said. “It’s the lifeline of what we’re doing here.”