Even if you were a fairly committed Atlanta Braves fan, you’d be forgiven for not knowing the first thing about Bryse Wilson, your team’s starting pitcher, ahead of Game 4 of the NLCS. If you were a fan of any other team, the Braves might as well have put Bobson Dugnutt on the mound to try and go up 3-1 on Los Angeles.
But Wilson, who had pitched 42.2 innings across 15 appearances in three separate years before making his playoff debut last night, was more than up to the task that awaited him. Facing a future Hall of Famer who was desperate to prove he can perform in the clutch, Wilson came away the victor in lopsided fashion. Where Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw allowed four earned runs in five-plus innings of work, Wilson gave up just one run in six frames as he anchored the Braves in their eventual 10-2 triumph.
Armed with a powerful fastball, slippery off-speed stuff, impeccable control, and a god-awful head of hair, Wilson smothered a Dodgers lineup that, 24 hours earlier, had seemingly installed a cannon in the batter’s box. Though he gave up a dinger in the third to Edwin Rios, he otherwise no-hit the highest-scoring offense in baseball for two-thirds of a game. For a guy who spent most of the regular season away from the team at an alternate training site, had a career ERA of 5.91, and only threw 15.2 innings in the Majors this year, an NLCS game in Texas was undoubtedly a shocking place to find himself. But Wilson tried to take a sensible approach to a disorienting situation.
“I think the biggest thing for me is, at the end of the day, yes, it’s the postseason, yes, it’s the Championship Series, a crucial game, but for me, it’s just baseball,” he said afterwards. “It’s me throwing the ball to the catcher, getting hitters out, and that was the big thing for me to help me stay calm and help me go out there and do what I did.”
It wasn’t anywhere near that simple for Clayton Kershaw, who yet again came up short when his team needed a boost in the playoffs. The only serious trouble for the Dodgers’ ace through five innings was a solo shot by Marcell Ozuna in the fourth. But Kershaw, who missed his scheduled Game 2 start due to back spasms, slipped up in the sixth. A wacky little infield hit put Ronald Acuña Jr. on second base to start things off, and then Kershaw surrendered back-to-back doubles by Freddie Freeman and Ozuna to open up the ballgame and give the Braves a 3-1 lead. Having allowed seven hits total, Kershaw was unceremoniously pulled out of the game by Dave Roberts, but the damage only snowballed from there. Defector fave Brusdar Graterol finally had a bad postseason night, getting tagged for three earned runs, and Victor Gonzalez tried his best to mop things up as the Braves scored seven runs before the Dodgers could get three outs.
A pitcher’s win-loss record may not mean much nowadays, but in the playoffs it’s still the most important stat, and Kershaw is now 11-12 for his Dodgers career. Even more damningly, his 4.31 postseason ERA is the worst of anyone with at least 100 innings of experience.
Roberts, in the postgame, unsurprisingly defended his pitcher from the “choker” narrative, saying “he gave us a chance to win the baseball game.” But Thursday’s game can’t help but become yet another bullet point in the long list of Kershaw losses in big moments—a list that echoes the Dodgers’ biggest disappointments in their recent history. Seven runs allowed against the Cardinals in the decisive NLCS Game 6 of 2013. Three runs as the Dodgers fell to the same team the next year. Four earned against the Cubs as Chicago advanced to the World Series. Six earned in a Game 5 World Series loss to Houston. Losses in both starts against Boston in 2018. And, perhaps most brutally, back-to-back dongs in Game 5 against the Nats last year.
That Kershaw has pitched well enough to be present for so many big moments speaks very highly of his abilities, but more often than not, he’s been a victim of baseball’s cruelties every time they come around. Every sport likes to talk up how anything can happen in any given game, but baseball embodies this randomness more than any other. It’s hard to even wrap my head around as I type it, but one of the most obscure pitchers imaginable really did just outduel a guy with a career bWAR of 69.6 in a Game 4 that now gives his team three chances to win one for the pennant. Sometimes you just gotta shrug and, if you’re a Dodgers fan, maybe shed a few tears.