ARLINGTON, Texas – Bryse Wilson was just 10 years old the first time Clayton Kershaw set foot in a National League Championship Series, the 20-year-old southpaw embarking on a postseason career that he’d have no idea would be so torturous, and the Little Leaguer growing up in North Carolina unable to fathom he’d someday be the one adding to the misery.
Their paths crossed on a windswept Thursday night at Globe Life Field, and little could Kershaw imagine his October nightmares would be extended by such an unlikely adversary.
Making just his eighth major league start and first playoff appearance, Wilson cooled off a Dodgers lineup that scored 15 runs the night before, holding them to one hit in six innings and enabling the Braves to await an October inevitability.
It finally came in the bottom of the sixth, when an innocuous infield chopper kick-started Kershaw’s latest playoff misadventure. It ended six runs later with the Braves on the verge of an NL pennant and the Dodgers, the deepest and most talented team in the game, pondering another winter far longer than they’d prefer.
The Braves’ 10-2 victory, powered by Marcell Ozuna’s two home runs, four hits and four RBI, vaulted them to a 3-1 lead in this NLCS while wondering just how many fistfuls of house money they might claim. Friday night, they’ll likely lean on a cadre of pitchers to piece together nine innings in a Game 5 that could send them to the World Series.
The Dodgers will do the same, starting with rookie fireballer Dustin May and a more rested bullpen to save their season. Ostensibly, the Dodgers would have the advantage.
Yet things looked great for them on paper in Game 4, as well. Wilson brought a 5.91 career ERA into the game and, over parts of three seasons had only completed six innings once. While manager Brian Snitker professed confidence in Wilson, he confessed after Game 4 the bar was appropriately low.
“If he went four innings, I’d have been happy, to be honest,” says Snitker. “A young kid like this who hadn’t pitched in three weeks…Six was an unbelievable plus.
“That was just an unbelievable job.”
Particularly considering the Dodgers set a postseason record with their 11 runs in Game 3’s first inning, and tied an NLCS record with 15 runs in the season-saving romp. They batted for 32 minutes in that record-setting first inning.
Thursday night, Wilson retired the side on nine pitches.
And off he was on his unlikely adventure, striking out five Dodgers, yielding only Edwin Rios’ third-inning home run, and aided by a stiff breeze blowing in from center field that knocked down more than one ball that could have been extra bases.
“I honestly don’t think he was too fazed he was facing Kershaw,” says Braves reliever Chris Martin. “That’s a great arm over there but he focused on what he needed.”
Then, there was Kershaw.
His many October wounds are occasionally circumstantial, often self-inflicted, usually aided and abetted by questionable managerial moves and reliever malpractice behind him.
GAME 3 REWIND: Dodgers set postseason record with 11 first-inning runs
In Game 4, all of the above applied.
Kershaw’s lone blemish through five innings was a thunderous, game-tying home run yielded to Marcell Ozuna in the fourth inning. His slider was biting just enough and his curveball its usually tight self, both sufficiently keeping Atlanta’s powerful lineup off his fastball that, at age 32, barely touches 90 mph.
And then, poof.
The sixth began with Ronald Acuña Jr. chopping a ball behind the mound that bounced lazily past Kershaw’s extended glove. Kiké Hernandez could not make the do-or-die play and his throwing error put the go-ahead run at second.
Ozuna was due up third, but Dodgers manager Dave Roberts did not feel an urgency to line up a right-hander for him. Brusdar Graterol, clad in a sweatshirt, did some dry throws off a bullpen mound, but that was it.
Besides, Freddie Freeman, the likely NL MVP, was next, and that was Kershaw’s guy. Freeman, though, won this lefty-on-lefty battle, pulling a double down the left-field line to drive in Acuña.
By now, Graterol was throwing, but Kershaw would face Ozuna. It was still a 2-1 game; some proactive bullpen management for a lefty starter with a fading fastball might have been the move.
Instead, Ozuna torched an RBI double, finishing Kershaw but only kick-starting the damage.
Graterol gave up three consecutive hits, including a two-run double by Dansby Swanson and RBI single from Austin Riley, and was yanked. By inning’s end, it was 7-1.
By night’s end, Kershaw would have an 11-12 career postseason record. His overall 2020 line – a 2-1 record, a 3.32 ERA, 23 strikeouts to two walks – doesn’t look that bad.
It will do nothing to erase the annual October image of him in the dugout after an early hook or a precipitous fall, flummoxed and miserable.
The Braves? They are awaiting a coronation, one win away from their first World Series since 1999 and aces Max Fried and Ian Anderson ready should Game 5 not go their way.
Wilson put them in that position, starting his day with his girlfriend noting how quiet he was, relaxing once he got into the clubhouse cocoon of his teammates and finally, at night’s end, sharing the glory with his parents.
He was the third consecutive Braves rookie to start in this series, following fellow 2016 draftee Anderson and Kyle Wright, a 2017 selection who was on the wrong end of the Dodgers’ 15-run inning in Game 3.
No matter. Wilson replicated Wright’s game plan and attacked the Dodgers, but masterfully commanded his pitches. The rookie trio now are on the doorstep of forming the core of a World Series rotation.
“It means so much,” says Wilson, “especially us coming up together in the minor leagues, it means the world we are able to do this together.”
They’re just getting started. Kershaw might counsel them to seize the moment, because the years go quickly and the hill only gets steeper.