After five-and-a-half innings, Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker left the top step of the dugout, walked past the coolers, past the buckets, past spray bottles and candy bars and binders thick with important information like how to shut down the Los Angeles Dodgers again. He arrived at Bryse Wilson, his 22-year-old starting pitcher who was seated on the bench having thrown 74 pitches and the game of his life. Snitker extended his hand.
They hadn’t won yet, but they were getting around to that. They weren’t one win from the franchise’s first World Series in 21 years, but that was coming too. Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw was still out there, but not for much longer.
Wilson stood quickly, politely, as if poked by his mom in church. He put his right hand in Snitker’s. Snitker reached with his left hand to pat Wilson on the shoulder. Wilson nodded a lot at whatever Snitker was saying — “Unbelievable, congratulations, a huge, huge effort,” Snitker revealed later — and returned the gesture, reaching to pat Snitker’s shoulder with his left hand. The word “faith” is tattooed on that forearm.
This was new and Wilson took his reads from Snitker. A fourth-round draft pick just four years ago, having those six innings ago made his eighth major league start, Wilson hadn’t participated in many of these ceremonial attaboys. He’d just spent a couple hours outpitching Kershaw, holding a team that had popped 11 runs in a single inning the night before to one hit across six innings, and yet hoisting Snitker to his shoulders and trotting back and forth in the dugout perhaps seemed over the top. So he kept his weight on his heels, recognizing this was the moment the manager comes to say good job and we knew you had it in you, and — hell yeah — this is where you try to play it a little cool, don’t get too dopey or in any way reveal you might be wholly over the moon about this. You know, had ‘em all the way, what we’re here for, right, skip?
The manager didn’t have to know he’d awakened Thursday morning so nervous he’d hardly said a word to his girlfriend all day, then didn’t realize he’d gone mute until she’d said so.
“Once I got out there and threw the first pitch,” Wilson said of a 95 mph fastball to Mookie Betts, “I felt calm, cool and collected.”
So the two grown men were standing there going on six innings later, their right hands clasped, their left hands strayed to one another’s shoulders, when Snitker did that sneaky old man thing, yanking hard with his right hand, pulling Wilson in for a hug, and Wilson, 240-some pounds of him caught leaning, all but fell into the arms of a 64-year-old guy he outweighed by 50 pounds. They avoided eye contact after that.
Then Wilson would smile and accept the same from the rest of the fellas, hugs he knew were coming this time, while Snitker worked his way back to the top step, to the beginnings of a six-run rally that would make a winner out of Bryse Wilson and give the Braves a three games to one lead in the National League Championship Series. They’d win, 10-2, because their offense — Marcell Ozuna had four hits, including two home runs — eventually turned on Kershaw and whoever walked out behind him, because the Dodgers always find this sort of game, this sort of series, come October, and because all these games in a row lead an organization to some hard decisions, and the latest one was to give the ball to one Bryse Wilson, the young man from North Carolina built like a linebacker because he was one.
Four year later he’s practically pulled off his feet by a guy who could be his grandfather, because they’ll teach you everything in this game but what happens in one of the bigger wins for a franchise in a couple decades. Sixty-something-year-old lifers, by now, learn to enjoy the little moments on the way to the grander ones, mostly because you can’t be sure the grander ones are out there anymore.
“Wow,” Snitker said about Bryse Wilson and six innings and one hit and one run and a rescued bullpen. “That’s all I can say. I mean, are you kiddin’ me?”
Maybe it never occurred to the Dodgers they would lose, that they’d get to the end of Thursday down three games to one in a series that’s settled at four. No matter when they run out of games — in the Division Series, League Championship Series or World Series — or how often, they bear the same confusion in their eyes. Weren’t they the favorites? Didn’t they win all those games before this? Don’t they have great players? Wasn’t this the team? Wasn’t this the one? Hell, hadn’t Kershaw gone 14 starts against the Braves and never lost? Hadn’t he given up two runs — two — in four postseason starts against the Braves through the fifth inning Thursday, 26 innings worth, and in Game 4 been dealt a rookie who spent most of his summer at the alternate site?
Couldn’t this regular-season offensive machine, even flying against so many past postseason offensive failures, work this kid over?
“To be able to do it against somebody as well established as Clayton Kershaw,” said Wilson, “it’s a great honor.”
Yeah, so, the answer would be no. No, the Dodgers couldn’t. Not against 16 first-pitch strikes to 20 batters. Not against 50 strikes in those 74 pitches. Not against a big ol’ fearless fastball and a curveball they couldn’t measure and a changeup they couldn’t find. Hours after they’d hit five home runs and scored 15 runs and declared themselves on their feet again, the Dodgers lost to their second Braves rookie — Ian Anderson was the first — in three days.
Upon the final out, Wilson climbed the stairs from the dugout to greet his teammates, who’d finished it off. He turned and found his parents in the stands at Globe Life Field. They’d flown in from North Carolina for the game, cheered his every pitch, then would have to hurry back home. Bryse’s brother, Payton, is a linebacker for North Carolina State. He would play Duke on Saturday.
He waved. He bumped his chest with his right fist. Beneath his mask, he smiled. They said something he couldn’t quite hear.
“I could just tell,” he said. “‘I love you.’ ‘We’re proud of you.’”
And that just knocked him off his feet. Again.
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