Big-game reputation growing, Walker Buehler keeps Dodgers' focus on winning a ring

Tim Brown
·MLB columnist

By late Friday night, only 15 or 20 minutes after they’d put an end-to-end game on the Tampa Bay Rays, Los Angeles Dodgers players and their manager took their turns in the chair that faced the camera and the questions about their two-games-to-one lead in the World Series.

First Mookie Betts, then Austin Barnes, then Justin Turner, then Walker Buehler, then Dave Roberts.

Betts pushed his cap back on his head in a moment of ease before squaring it. Barnes, the backup who catches the best of the staff in the deepest of October, proceeded earnestly. While Turner’s spirit generally plays to his muppet-y appearance, he soberly revealed that for the first time this fall he’d felt in command in the batter’s box for an entire game. Buehler sat down, turned to someone in the room and requested something that sounded like, “Let’s keep this pretty short,” and didn’t wait for a reply. Roberts was affable, as he typically is, though it seemed he, like the rest, had little time for this 6-2 win, for what had just happened.

A couple of them hadn’t yet gotten out of their uniforms. Betts’ jersey still wore the residue of two more stolen bases. The crowd at Globe Life Field, patchy as it was, almost certainly hadn’t cleared the parking lot. In the other clubhouse, the Rays were only just announcing their starting pitcher for Saturday night. By an hour it was still Friday night, still the day Buehler pitched about as well as he ever has, still the day the Dodgers chased October leviathan Charlie Morton with seven hits and five runs before the fifth inning was done, and still the day they’d take their first series lead into a World Series Game 4 in 32 years.

And they seemed disinterested in that, beyond the fact they’d require some sort of lead at some point this weekend or next week to win the thing. And what they looked like was a team that had fought too many of these lately to lend their souls to storylines that would tell only part of a story, the part where they had two wins when what they wanted — what they needed — is four. It’s not four. Heck, earlier this week they watched a very good team blow a three-games-to-one lead in a series very much like this one.

So, heavy-lidded and distant like when he pitches, Buehler had it relayed to him that Barnes had said, “That might have been the best I’ve ever seen his stuff,” and responded, “At this point I’ve kind of been through this thing a couple times and now it’s all about winning and that’s all I care about. … Right now I just want to win two more games.”

And Turner, asked if he was considering they were halfway there, and probably remembering once not so long ago when they were one win from there, nearly recoiled. “Absolutely not,” he said. “We know how difficult this is. We know there’s still a lot of work to do in front of us … You assess how tonight went and come back tomorrow and make whatever adjustments you need to make and go back to grinding away and finding a way to win a ballgame tomorrow.”

He’d homered in the first inning, that accounting for the second earned run Morton had allowed in four postseason starts. Turner, two innings later, had doubled and scored on Max Muncy’s two-out, two-run single. The Dodgers of recent postseasons were panned for ill-timed pitching performances, but their real ailment was accumulating hits and runs and good at-bats. This version of the Dodgers has scored 50 two-out runs across 15 games, which sounds like a lot and is a postseason record.

Asked how that could be, Betts said, “Just not giving up.”

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 23: Walker Buehler #21 of the Los Angeles Dodgers walks off the field after the fourth inning of Game 3 of the 2020 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays at Globe Life Field on Friday, October 23, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Dodgers starter Walker Buehler dominated the Rays in World Series Game 3, striking out 10 over six innings. (Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

The conversations, short as they were, did have a tendency to return to Buehler, who pitched and carried himself and then watched the final three innings as though nothing would surprise him on this field on this night. Of his 93 pitches, 59 were fastballs, many flung at 98 and 99 mph, five of which were put into play.

At 26, two years since he beat the Colorado Rockies in a Game 163, and building on a reputation born then and then across his past eight postseason starts, allowed three hits and a run in six innings. He struck out 10 Rays, among them Brandon Lowe three times, once with a curveball, once with a slider and lastly with a 97-mph fastball. He walked one. His ERA this postseason is 1.80. His ERA across his past nine postseason starts is 1.28. The Dodgers have won seven of those.

Asked to consider that, Roberts smiled and said, “I’m kind of mired in it right now. I’m living through it. I appreciate how talented [he is] at what he’s doing. I haven’t kind of put it all together and kind of wrapped my head around all that he’s accomplished in this short period of time. But, being a big-game pitcher and really succeeding on this stage, there’s only a few guys, currently and throughout history. He’s some really elite company. I’m just happy he’s in a Dodger uniform.”

For whatever reason, the regular season seemed to sneak up on Buehler. He never pitched more than six innings. In only four of eight starts did he pitch into the fifth inning. His highest pitch count was 92. He regularly rested five days between starts, then missed time because of blisters, and for all of that arrived in the postseason not necessarily as the hammer No. 1 or 2 starter for the Dodgers, but as a pitcher searching for his midseason groove.

It was coming. His ERA over four postseason starts before Friday night, including six shutout innings against the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, was 1.89. He struck out 29 batters in 19 innings. He threw a season-high 95 pitches against the San Diego Padres, then 100 in his Game 1 start against the Braves.

For his four seasons, Buehler has been a better pitcher at Dodger Stadium than away from it. His ERA on the road in 2020 was nearly five times what it was at home — 6.19 to 1.31, though he made only eight starts total and pitched through those various blister issues that flared indiscriminately.

On Friday night he made his fourth consecutive start at Globe Life Field. The Dodgers played their 13th consecutive game there, since Oct. 6. Maybe it was starting to feel like home.

Walker Buehler relied heavily upon his fastball to silence the Rays in Game 3. (Via Baseball Savant)
Walker Buehler relied heavily upon his fastball to silence the Rays in Game 3. (Via Baseball Savant)

While Buehler seemed somewhat unsettled in the regular season, perhaps not quite right, there were signs the broader results were out there. The velocity on four of his five favored pitches — four-seam fastball, sinker, slider and curveball — had increased over 2019. Only the cutter had lost speed. The spin rates were improved on all of those pitches. In fact, read across the columns that have come to separate the good pitchers from the great ones — break, tilt, spin efficiency — and Buehler, seemingly unbalanced by the start-stop-start nature of the 2020 season, was actually becoming more precise, more powerful and, as October has come to suggest, more dominant.

He pitched like an ace Friday night, or a 2020 ace anyway. And the Dodgers won a World Series game. And it was so taut, how they did it. So relentless. And to a man, they said that was fine, that it was pretty good for a Friday night in late October. What they’d really wanted, it seemed, was to keep it short and get on to the next one.

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