Walker Buehler strutted off the mound Friday night as if this wasn’t the World Series, as if 10 strikeouts in six innings was nothing, as if these kinds of overpowering performances in his sport’s grandest setting are ordinary.
They aren’t ordinary for most pitchers, but most pitchers don’t boast the resume Buehler has drafted in his young major league career. He is a big-game pitcher in every sense of the overused descriptor. He provided more evidence in the Dodgers’ thorough 6-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 3 of the World Series at Globe Life Field.
Buehler held the Rays to one run and three hits across six frames behind an explosive fastball in the high 90s. He walked one and became the seventh pitcher in franchise history to compile double-digit strikeouts in a World Series game. By the end of the night, the right-hander had a 1.80 earned-run average with 39 strikeouts in 25 innings across five outings in these playoffs, despite dealing with blisters on his right index and middle fingers since late August.
“He was unbelievable,” Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes said. “That might have been the best I’ve ever seen his stuff.”
The 26-year-old Buehler got the ball Friday two years after tossing seven scoreless innings in Game 3 of the 2018 World Series against the Boston Red Sox as a rookie. The Dodgers eventually won in 18 innings that night to avoid a 3-0 hole. On Friday, the Dodgers took a 2-1 series lead, moving within two wins of their first championship in more than three decades.
Game 4 is scheduled for 5:08 p.m. PDT on Saturday.
“The more you do these things,” Buehler said, “the calmer you get.”
The Dodgers’ run-production portfolio, better diversified this year to avoid another October letdown, supplied all the support Buehler needed.
Justin Turner slugged a home run in the first inning. Barnes became the second player in World Series history with a safety squeeze and home run in the same game. Mookie Betts delivered two singles and stole two bases for the second time in the series. In all, the Dodgers tallied five two-out runs to push their total to 50 in the postseason, breaking the previous playoff record of 46 set by Boston in 2004.
“Whether it’s two outs, not two outs, regardless of the game’s score,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “they’re just really competing every at-bat.”
Charlie Morton, the only Ray with previous World Series experience, took the mound opposite Buehler. The last time he pitched this deep into October went poorly for the Dodgers. Morton allowed two runs in 10-1/3 innings in two games for the Houston Astros in the 2017 World Series. He closed out the Dodgers with four dominant innings in Game 7 at Dodger Stadium.
Three years later, the Dodgers had no trouble handling the 36-year-old right-hander. He was pulled with one out in the fourth inning after allowing five runs on seven hits. He threw 91 pitches. The five runs were the most he’s surrendered since opening day.
“We did a really good job against him tonight, battling and making him work, making him throw a lot of pitches,” Turner said. “And that’s kind of the MO of our offense. If we can do that, we can create some havoc on the bases.”
Several hours before first pitch, Major League Baseball — citing low temperatures, wind chill and a remote possibility of rain — announced the roof at Globe Life Field would be closed for the first time this postseason. The roof had been open for the first 12 playoff games at the ballpark, all of which included the Dodgers, even when the wind became an issue in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.
Gusts were fluctuating at 6-15 mph at first pitch that night. Fly balls were deadened, dirt swirled into players’ eyes, jerseys flapped in the wind.
The league, however, had decided not to close the roof unless rain was a possibility to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19 once fans were allowed for the NLCS.
MLB’s first indoor game with fans this year instead came on a day when the United States set a record for new coronavirus cases with 80,000. The announced attendance was 11,447.
The Dodgers estimated fly balls traveled approximately 10 feet farther with the roof open. The effect was evident even in batting practice.
Balls weren’t carrying as far. Home runs would be more difficult to muster. Turner made it look easy.
Morton was up 1-and-2, one strike away from a clean first inning, when he tried sneaking a high fastball by the Dodgers’ third baseman.
It was a mistake. Turner belted the pitch 396 feet over the left-field wall to put Los Angeles on the board first. The solo blast was Turner’s 11th career postseason home run, tying Duke Snider for most in franchise history. Snider accumulated his 11 exclusively in World Series games.
“It means I’ve had the opportunity to play on a lot of really good baseball teams, we’ve gone deep in October and I’ve gotten a lot of ABs,” said Turner, whose diving stop robbed Mike Zunino of a hit and started an inning-ending double play in the third.
The Dodgers added two more two-out runs in the third inning on Max Muncy’s single. In the fourth, with one out and Cody Bellinger at third base, Roberts instructed Barnes to drop a safety squeeze. Barnes executed the play to perfection.
Two innings later, he cracked a 425-foot shot to become the 11th Dodger with a home run this postseason after not making the team’s playoff roster a year ago.
But Barnes didn’t start behind the plate over Will Smith, the Dodgers’ designated hitter Friday, for his offense. He was there for his pitch framing and ability to guide his batterymate.
On Friday, he helped Buehler carry a no-hitter until Manuel Margot doubled with one out in the fifth inning. Willy Adames doubled to give the Rays their first run. Buehler’s command was slipping but he rebounded.
His final act came opposite Randy Arozarena, the Rays’ breakout postseason star, with a runner on first base. He completed it with a tight, 82-mph curveball just off the plate. Arozarena hacked and missed for strikeout No. 10. Buehler’s latest October gem ended there, after he became the first pitcher in World Series history to record double-digit strikeouts in six or fewer innings. It was extraordinary, even if he didn’t make it seem that way.
“He’s confident, man,” Barnes said. “He’s a confident dude.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.