WORLD SERIES 2021: BRAVES RELIEVER KYLE WRIGHT PUTS ATLANTA IN POSITION TO CLOSE OUT ASTROS ON SUNDAY

When Kyle Wright sprinted in from the bullpen in the first inning of Game 4 of the World Series, it was the first time he had pitched at Truist Park since Sept. 25, 2020 — and the first time in front of fans in Atlanta since Sept. 21, 2019.

Braves country hadn’t seen this dude in a while. It was one hell of a time for him to reintroduce himself.

That’s certainly not to say that no one remembered him. Consider the pitcher whose mess he had to clean up: Dylan Lee. A former 10th-round pick of the Marlins, Lee was released by Florida at the end of spring training before latching on with the Braves and skyrocketing through the minors en route to a big-league debut in September and several high-leverage appearances in October. He was the definition of an anonymous reliever whom 99 percent of viewers at home had likely never heard of before he was announced as Atlanta’s Game 4 starter.

Wright, conversely, is a name many fans know. When you star at Vanderbilt, one of the best college baseball programs in the country, and you’re the fifth overall pick in the 2017 draft, it’s difficult to fly under the radar no matter your ERA. But we hadn’t seen much of Wright in 2021, and many fans’ most recent memory of him was probably him getting absolutely shelled in Game 3 of the 2020 NLCS.

Wright started only two games for Atlanta this year. He allowed two runs in 4.1 innings against the Cubs in April at Wrigley Field, but his command was a mess that day. He walked only two, but he hit four batters, something no other major-league pitcher did in a single outing this season and only 12 others have done this century.

His next big-league start came in June in New York against the Mets, and he was knocked out after just two innings, having walked three and allowed five runs. For the majority of the season — 137 innings across 24 starts, to be exact — Wright was in Triple-A, trying to rediscover what had made him a great pitcher in the past.

“I was really frustrated,” he told FOX Sports before Game 1. “I was struggling bad. I know I’m a way better pitcher than that, so that’s when I had to hit the reset button.”

It wasn’t a total overhaul. It was more of a return to what worked in the past. 

“I was fighting my mechanics the whole year and never really got where I felt comfortable, so I went back and looked at some college video,” Wright said. “Ever since I started to do that, my consistency was way better, my stuff was better, all my numbers were better.”

Wright also credits his work with Zack Sorensen, the head of mental performance for the Braves, for helping him achieve more consistency. 

“I feel like my mechanics would get in my head a little bit,” he said. “Sometimes I would worry too much about that, and then I was like, ‘Man, why am I pitching like this?’ Once I got that cleaned up, everything else took care of itself.”

Wright felt like he turned a significant corner in the second half this season. A call-up back to Atlanta still eluded him, but he was taking care of business in Gwinnett. He posted a 2.11 ERA in 76.2 innings pitched across his final 12 starts of the season, including 23 scoreless innings to finish the year.

“From there, everything kinda took off,” he said. “I feel much more confident now.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker was glad Wright was able to spend the season finding his best self with Gwinnett. 

“He’s been through a lot in a young career, and we’ve created a lot of it, quite honestly,” he said. “I thought the best thing was for him to stay in Triple-A all year and amass innings and pitch and be successful.”

The 26-year-old right-hander stayed in Gwinnett, where the Braves had their alternate site, after the minor-league season concluded to stay ready in case he was needed during the postseason. Sure enough, the morning Atlanta traveled to Houston, Wright learned that he had made the World Series roster.

With the Braves down 7-2 in the eighth inning of Game 2, Snitker called on Wright to get his feet wet in a game that was out of hand. Wright promptly struck out the side. That curveball he relied on more down the stretch got Jose Siri swinging. Then Martín Maldonado and Jose Altuve were caught looking at his sinker.

Wright looked good, and it seemed like he had a greater purpose in the Series than one fairly meaningless inning late in a loss.

Even before the World Series began, everyone had Game 4 underlined as a huge potential pivot point. We knew it’d be Charlie Morton, Max Fried and Ian Anderson in some order, but then what? That’s the question Snitker was trying to answer all October — and arguably all season.

When Wright was added to the roster before the Series, he seemed like a possible candidate to play a big role in that Game 4, despite having started only two games in the big leagues in 2021. Skeptics reasonably pointed out that if Wright were so good and ready to contribute, why wasn’t he on the roster in the earlier rounds?

Once Lee got in trouble, though, Snitker had no choice. He likely didn’t want to turn the ball over to a reliever until at least the second inning, but the manager acted with urgency and trusted Wright to put out the fire. He was rewarded. 

“It was awesome,” Snitker said after Game 4. “The situation we put him in was probably something we didn’t want to do, honestly, but how he limited damage … His stuff was so good tonight, too.”

His final line — 4.2 IPs, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BBs, 3 K’s — dramatically undersells the impact of his outing. It was the third-longest relief outing in the World Series in the wild-card era (since 1995), behind only Nathan Eovaldi’s six-inning effort in the 18-inning World Series Game 3 in 2018 and Madison Bumgarner’s five scoreless innings to close out Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. Decent company!

Furthermore, the length Wright provided puts Atlanta in a much more favorable position to close out the Series without needing to head back to Houston. Wright’s covering all those early innings while keeping Atlanta in the game allowed Snitker to stay away from A.J. Minter and Jesse Chavez, who will be fresh and likely heavily relied upon in Sunday’s Game 5, which is also scheduled to be a bullpen game of sorts.

If anyone had confidence in Wright with the game on the line, it was probably his former college teammate, Dansby Swanson, another of Atlanta’s heroes from Game 4.

“That’s been one thing I feel like I’ve always told Alex [Anthopoulos],” Swanson said. “I said, ‘That guy, he’s got it. He’s got it. I know he does.’ He was nails for us then, and he’s obviously been pretty special so far here in this World Series. He’s not shy of the big moments, and that’s something that can be gained from that time when we were at school.”

Swanson and Wright overlapped for only one season at Vanderbilt — in 2015, when Swanson was a junior and Wright was a freshman — but it was a big one. Wright was excellent his entire freshman campaign: a 1.23 ERA in 58.2 innings, mostly in relief, including four strong outings in the College World Series. A year after winning it all in 2014, the Commodores returned to Omaha to defend their title and almost succeeded, ultimately succumbing to Virginia in the championship series.

“I feel like it still has a little bit of a sour taste in our mouth,” Wright said after Game 4. “I know that we want to finish this thing off strong, but just being able to play with Dansby at this moment, at this stage, is something really cool. I don’t think there’s too many guys who have been able to do that, so it’s pretty special.”

Six years later, with a championship again within reach, both Vandy Boys stepped up and seized the opportunity to help their team win when the stakes were highest. And now they might finally raise a trophy together after all.

“How these postseason series go, you never know what’s gonna happen,” Wright said before Game 1. “So you gotta be ready for anything.”

It’s safe to say he was ready. And thanks in large part to his heroics, the Braves are one win away from a World Series title.

“Kyle is the reason we won the game, how he kept that thing in check and allowed us to stay around in that game,” Snitker said postgame. “That was huge.”

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