LOS ANGELES — It was evident in Walker Buehler not long after he wedged his way into the Dodgers’ starting rotation in 2018. He might be young, but he’s strong-willed and he does not scare.
“That’s why aces are aces,” Manager Dave Roberts said Tuesday afternoon. “They don’t run from fights.”
They’re just as likely to jump in.
So Saturday night, when Buehler informed his manager after the Dodgers won Game 2 of the National League Division Series in San Francisco that he would be available to pitch a Game 4 three nights later, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.
After Monday’s crushing 1-0 loss to the Giants in Game 3, then, the choice was obvious. The Dodgers had gone through the charade of trotting Tony Gonsolin to the interview room before Monday’s game, the implication being that Gonsolin would somehow take down bulk innings in some sort of a bullpen game. But afterward, there were hints Buehler would be involved, and Albert Pujols pretty well let the cat out of the bag when he went to the postgame interview room and said, “Walker is throwing the ball real well all year long. I think he’s going to go out there and we expect the same thing.”
They got it. Buehler was pitching on three days’ rest for the first time as a starter in the majors. But he was also pitching in the fourth elimination game of his career, and that muscle memory overrode the short rest and helped the Dodgers extend their season at least one more game.
The assignment, Roberts said, was to “go as hard as you can as long as you can.” Buehler, who threw 99 pitches in Game 1 on Friday in San Francisco, came back with 71 pitches in 4-1/3 innings Tuesday night, giving up a run and three hits and starting the Dodgers toward their eventual series-extending 7-2 victory.
If Julio Urias can take the baton from Buehler and take the Dodgers the rest of the way Thursday night at Oracle Park when he faces the Giants’ Logan Webb, let’s at least hope Buehler’s effort will be remembered with the significance it deserves.
This was an ace doing what aces do. This was what the Dodgers had asked of Clayton Kershaw so many times over the years, to pitch on short rest and bail out a beleaguered or short-handed pitching rotation.
Buehler handled it like a charm, belying the fact he was doing it for the first time. Of his 71 pitches, 42 were strikes. He threw the four-seamer most of the time (34 pitches) but got most of his swings and misses on his slider (three of 13) and changeup (two of 13), as well as four called strikes on the changeup.
“Honestly, I want to say he had better stuff than he had the other night,” Roberts said afterward, jokingly suggesting maybe the solution was to “have him go short more often.
“He just seemed relaxed,” he added. “Sometimes, when you might be a little more fatigued and not too amped up or too strong, you don’t try to do too much. All night long he stayed in his delivery. The stuff, the velocity, the characteristics of his secondary pitches were really good. He used the change when he needed to, and I thought it was really good all night long.”
Catcher Will Smith said Buehler’s velocity was actually up from his previous start – he averaged 96.1 on the four-seam and 95.7 on the sinker – but the changeup has become a true weapon.
“Yeah, over the whole course of the year it’s just developed and gotten better and better,” Smith said. “He can throw it for a strike when he needs to. He can keep it below, get some chase on it. And, yeah, he had a good feel for it tonight so we leaned on it a little more and he was executing with it.”
As a rookie in 2018, Buehler pitched and won Game 163 against Colorado for the NL West title, and started Game 7 of the NL Championship Series in Milwaukee (one run allowed in 4-2/3 innings). In 2019 he started Game 5 against Washington in the Division Series (one run, four hits and seven strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings, only to have the bullpen waste it). And last year, when the Dodgers came back from a 3-1 deficit in the NLCS against Atlanta, Buehler pitched Game 5 and delivered six shutout innings with six strikeouts.
Clearly, the moment does not get too big for him.
“With an elimination game and having been here a little bit, I wanted the ball,” he said. “And I feel good about what I did. I wish I could have gotten a little bit deeper, but … we have the talent and the guys in the back end of the bullpen to cover it.
“To be completely honest, there probably wasn’t anything that could have been going on that I would have told him that I didn’t want the ball, so as long as I could walk into the clubhouse, I think I was going to pitch.”
When he decided to volunteer for Game 4, he remembered, he didn’t talk to anyone about it before asking, “and then I spoke to everyone after I said it to make sure I wasn’t being an idiot.
“Luckily we have the players in that room, (Max) Scherzer, Kersh, guys that have been asked to and have (done) that, that I was able to (say), ‘Hey, am I doing anything wrong? Should I be doing anything different?’ … It’s not something we want to do all the time, but I felt that if things didn’t go our way (Monday), I would feel really weird not pitching a game that we could lose a series.
“I’m very happy that it worked out and kind of fortunate in a lot of ways. Our offense took care of a lot of it. Bullpen took care of a lot of it. But it’s just kind of another thing in terms of trying to become the baseball player that I am and that I want to (be). And I’m glad it worked out for us.”
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This has probably been an ongoing process rather than one huge conversation. It is not uncommon to see Buehler, Kershaw and Scherzer in conversation on the dugout railing during games when they don’t pitch, talking pitching and sharing knowledge. Any questions Buehler might have asked about this situation in particular probably have had their base in all of those mid-game conversations.
Buehler talked as a rookie about drawing on the experience of Kershaw and then-teammate Rich Hill. But even then, Roberts trusted him in big games. And while the Dodgers need to be careful with usage on short rest – and ideally won’t need to lean on him often in those situations – they know they can depend on him.
After all, he’s an ace. And that’s what aces do.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter