ATLANTA — Brave Pitching coach Rick Kranich prefers not to draw conclusions from how a starter looks before a bullpen. He’s been around long enough to know that a bad session can make for a good outing and vice versa—there’s just too many pieces that can change, both physically and mentally, even just in the small window between the bullpen and first pitch.
On Wednesday, however, Kranitz couldn’t help but get a little excited: Kyle Wright looked absolutely amazing in the pen.
“I don’t put too much stock in it,” the veteran coach said. “But that was really good. I was like: Okay, I think he got it today.“
He did it.
The Braves correctly posted six scoreless innings against him Phillies— with just two hits and a walk — to set up a 3–0 win for Atlanta. The win ties the NLDS at one game apiece as the series moves to Philadelphia. And it marks what has been a redemptive arc for Wright.
“I feel like I have the confidence to play at this stage,” he said. “It’s a very good line-up and I knew that. But I knew that if I performed, then I would give myself a chance. And I really believed it.”
This was the kind of performance that would have been unthinkable a year ago. But it was right in line with what Wright has been doing in 2022. It was a showcase of everything he’s used to turn his career around this season—including, perhaps most notably, his curveball.
The 27-year-old has bounced up and down the minors since making his major league debut in 2018. But after staying in Atlanta’s rotation for his longest stretch so far in 2020 — making eight starts — he took a step back and passed nearly the entire year at Triple-A in 2021. The process was humbling. But it was necessary, Wright says now. He spent his time back in the minors studying his game — learning what felt best for him away from the pressures of the majors — and was ready to rejoin the big league rotation in 2022.
This time, make sure he doesn’t come back anytime soon. He finished the regular season as a 21-game winner, leading the MLB, with a 3.19 ERA. It was a twist that required a series of adjustments from Wright: mechanical, emotional, procedural. But one was strategic. While in the bigs in 2020, he has used his curveball the least of all his pitches, instead relying mostly on his sinker and slider. This season, it has become his most frequent pitch. And on Wednesday, entering the biggest stage he’s seen this season, he turned on it even more than usual.
The curve made up nearly half of his pitches in Game 2 — a notable increase from his season average of 34 percent — and was effective all night. But it was most telling in one particular plate appearance: A fifth out by Phillies second baseman Jean Segura.
Wright had just issued a four-pitch walk to Brandon Marsh — his biggest error of the game. This was the moment when a younger, less confident version of the pitcher could have broken through. The game was scoreless. The order was to be reversed. Wright knew he wouldn’t be allowed much room to work with here: With no lead, his pitch count up, Braves manager Brian Schnitker would almost certainly come to get him if he made another mistake. He steeled himself to face Segura. And then he got a job.
Curveball: right in the corner for a call strike. Curveball: long for swing and miss. Curveball: this one lower, even farther, for another swing and miss. Outside.
He had followed the four-pitch walk with a three-pitch hit — and he had done it with his faith in the curve.
“That at-bat, Segura, I was able to throw some really good ones to get him to drive off the plate,” Wright said. “I have a lot of confidence in it. I can throw it for a strike. I can try to strike guys out… For me, it’s almost like throwing a fastball. I have just as much confidence on the first pitch as I do on any other pitch.”
That confidence has been the biggest development for Wright’s curveball this year, Kranitz said. There have been technicalities, of course — they’ve worked to add more sweep to it and tried to adapt its usage to that of veteran Braves starter Charlie Morton. But that’s what it took to go from his least used pitch in 2020 to his most used in 2022: He just had to trust it. When asked to break down the at-bat against Segura by going to the curve three straight times, Kranitz could only focus there.
“He trusted it,” Kranich said. “He trusted what he had to do.”
Wright’s success was instrumental in how he set up his pitching staff going forward. After Max Fried’s short outing in Game 1, the Braves needed some time from their starter in Game 2, and they got it. “It was huge for us,” Snitker said. “We needed to get to our back guys.” After six innings by Wright, the final three frames could be split between the team’s best relievers, none of whom had pitched in Game 1: AJ Minter, Raisel Iglesias and Kenley Jansen. Each one needed a period. They allowed one baserunner between their three. Now, with a travel day on Thursday, the pen should be well rested for Friday and Saturday.
Snitker declined to name a starter for Game 3 — a hint that the Braves may be ready to consider the return of injured rookie Spencer Strider. But they couldn’t be happier with their Game 2 play.
“Kyle himself, he’s been through a lot,” Snitker said. “Now, almost a year, I mean—it’s been a long time. And he handled everything incredibly.”
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