ATLANTA – To call it an impossible dream might be hyperbole, since the Atlanta Braves came home all square in this World Series, needing three wins to call themselves champions, same as the Houston Astros.
Yet given the path they’d travel to get there – down to just a pair of healthy starting pitchers, leaning even more on a bullpen already carrying them, a punishing opponent ready to pounce – a World Series title seemed like the stuff of fantasy.
Now, they’re just 27 more outs from making everybody’s dreams come true.
Saturday night in Game 4, embarking on an 18-inning stretch in which all the outs would be recorded by relief pitchers, the Braves dusted off a bad idea – giving a kid his first career start in a World Series – and uncovered a burgeoning gem of their own. Oh, when history looks back on this 3-2 victory over the Astros, they’ll focus on the startling back-to-back seventh-inning home runs by Dansby Swanson and Jorge Soler, and Eddie Rosario’s highlight-reel backhand catch in the eighth.
Yet if the Braves are to capture their first World Series title since 1995 – and the first of three shots comes at Truist Park Sunday night at 8 ET – they’ll know the real battle came in covering the outs left behind by a trail of injured starting pitchers.
Saturday night, it was Kyle Wright, a big leaguer since 2018 yet carrying a 6.56 ERA in 21 appearances scattered over four years, who turned the odds in Atlanta’s favor.
Taking the ball from ill-fated opener Dylan Lee in the top of the first inning, Wright pitched the game of his professional career, absorbing 4 ⅔ innings for the Braves, dodging plenty of traffic – eight baserunners in all – yet getting nicked only by Jose Altuve’s fourth-inning homer.
Sure, the glory this October – and in any recounting of an eventual Braves championship – will belong to high-leverage relievers Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson and Will Smith, who finished this win with three innings of one-hit, scoreless relief.
Yet getting to them in Game 4 looked like a bridge too far. And then Wright built it.
“Kyle is the reason we won this game,” says Braves manager Brian Snitker. “The situation we put him in was probably something we didn’t want to do, honestly, but he limited damage. He’s really, really good.”
The career resume may not indicate as much; Wright made just two appearances with the Braves this year, the last on June 23. He was not included on their rosters for the NL Division or Championship Series.
But Snitker suspected they might need greater length against the Astros and added Wright.
And then playoff ace Charlie Morton fractured his fibula in Game 1.
Suddenly, the calculus greatly changed, particularly after lefty Max Fried was peppered for five innings in a Game 2 loss. For the final four games, it’d be Ian Anderson, Fried in Game 6 – and everyone else in between.
And so the Braves got creative, probably too creative. They surprised Lee with his opener assignment Saturday afternoon – “I told my fiancee and her family and my family that they should come a little early to the game,” said the deadpan Dinuba, California native – and he pitched like a man wondering what he was doing there.
Lee ran in from the bullpen to start the game, rather than the dugout, but he couldn’t trick his left arm into thinking this was any regular outing. His night went single-walk-strikeout-walk, the Astros taking a 1-0 lead, before leaving Wright with a bases-loaded, one-out mess.
“I know,” Lee said, “that I’m a reliever, now.”
They could chuckle about it because Wright was so good, building on the confidence he developed in his final six starts down the road at Class AAA Gwinnett, a stretch in which he struck out 38 and walked just 10.
He allowed an RBI groundout to Carlos Correa but struck out Kyle Tucker to strand two more runners. It was just a 1-0 deficit.
He handed a 2-0 game to Chris Martin, one more inning Snitker had to steal – Martin did not pitch in the NLDS and just twice over nine games of the NLCS and World Series. But Martin’s uneventful inning lined up the big boys – Matzek, Jackson and Smith – to take them home.
Matzek, who worked the seventh, has given up just three runs in 13 ⅔ innings this postseason, striking out 17, with a 0.98 WHIP. Smith has not given up a run in 10 postseason innings and has saved six of the Braves’ 10 playoff wins.
“I was kind of working to get through the fifth inning so we could give it to our guys,” says Snitker, “and we did that. Hat’s off to our guys that did that, especially Kyle.”
There’s still just one complicating factor, though.
“I’ll be honest with you,” says Snitker, “I don’t know what direction we’re going to go tomorrow yet.”
It was already today when Snitker made that proclamation and indeed, Sunday night and Game 5 will come quickly. The Braves will likely go with another opener, perhaps Jesse Chavez (who started Game 5 of the NLCS). A.J. Minter, the last piece of the Braves’ Night Shift bullpen crew, will likely play a significant role.
He has struck out 16 in 11 innings and allowed just eight baserunners over seven games. Minter pitched an inning in Friday’s Game 3 but had Saturday off and with a championship to be won, will likely go as long as he can whenever summoned in Game 5.
That was Wright’s mindset Saturday, and the 26-year-old, a teammate of Dansby Swanson’s at Vanderbilt, exceeded everyone’s expectations.
“I felt like I was under control,” he says.
So, too, are the Braves, and the impossible is now just nine innings away.