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For Walker Buehler, a solid start

For Walker Buehler, a solid start
Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler pitches in the first inning against the Marlins at Dodger Stadium on April 23. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Did you hear him?

The first major league start for the Dodgers' ace of the future filled Chavez Ravine with a concerto of leather.

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Walker Buehler landed his fastballs in catcher Yasmani Grandal's black glove Monday night with such a distinct sound, the kid could have been directing the Los Angeles Pops!

There were loud pops at 98 mph, louder pops at 99 mph, and even one fortissimo pop at 100 mph.

There was noise when he induced J.B. Shuck into a foul tip to survive a bases-loaded jam in the first inning, noise when he followed with a stretch of four strikeouts in five batters, noise for five innings from everywhere but the Miami Marlins bats.

Did you hear him? If so, then you heard what could be the most important sound of the Dodgers' 2018 season.

Walker Buehler is only a 23-year-old rookie, and the Dodgers are going to carefully manage him like he is fine crystal, but his debut of five scoreless innings in a 2-1 victory could be the foundation of their championship hopes.

Buehler won't pitch every five days, and almost certainly won't spend the entire summer in the major leagues. But by September, he could be one of their top three starters. By October, he could be the late-season addition Yu Darvish never could be, and the Clayton Kershaw encore that the Dodgers have desperately needed.

That's a lot to put on a kid, even a former first-round draft pick, but he was bigger than the moment Monday when he either blew away the Marlins or fooled them into beating themselves.

"I wouldn't say any of them were really, really good," Buehler said of his 89 pitches, the most in his pro career. "But I don't think any of them were really, really bad."

You think? He gave up only four hits, all singles. None was hit in the air. Of the 21 batters he faced, only two hit fair balls in the air.

He struck out five, and didn't even throw a first-pitch ball until his 13th batter. He walked three, but followed each walk by retiring the next batter to end the inning. He was also helped by two great defensive plays at shortstop by Enrique Hernandez, who also homered.

"You look at a young player, and you see the heartbeat, there's no panic, he just steps up and makes pitches when he needs to," manager Dave Roberts said.

Buehler is an average-looking 6 feet 2 and 175 pounds, but his diamond presence was huge, and his attitude was clear.

He sprinted out of the dugout ahead of his teammates at the start of the game and was standing on the mound while everyone else was still moving, even outracing the child autograph seekers.

He stalked off the mound after each inning as if he owned the joint, never looking down or back.

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"He just feels he can make a pitch when he needs to make a pitch," said Roberts. "He doesn't scare off."

His abundant confidence, already well known around the Dodger clubhouse, was most clear when he retired Shuck to escape the bases-loaded mess in the first inning after giving up two singles and a walk.

"I've had the bases loaded a lot of times in my life, man," he said. "You try to make good pitches in different spots. I was lucky I made good pitches in spots I needed to."

In his celebrated big league debut last September, working out of the bullpen, Buehler was blasted, rocked for a 7.71 earned-run average in 9 1/3 unsteady innings. He is clearly a more comfortable pitcher now. He showed up Monday with a 2.08 ERA in three starts at triple-A Oklahoma City, and proceeded to pitch to the hype.

Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler pitches in the first inning on April 23.
Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler pitches in the first inning on April 23. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

This doesn't mean Buehler will stick around. He's not even guaranteed a spot past Saturday's doubleheader in San Francisco.

Buehler, who was the first draft pick of the Andrew Friedman/Farhan Zaidi era in the summer of 2015, underwent elbow ligament replacement surgery before beginning his pro career. This is only his third active pro season. Management is understandably going to put him in a bit of bubblewrap.

He'll probably be capped at about 150 innings. Since those innings are more easily controlled in the minor leagues, he will certainly spend time there. The Dodgers' goal will be to keep him fresh and strong for the championship run in the fall, and even days like Monday will not divert them from their plan.

When asked before the game how Buehler's performance would affect the rest of the season, Roberts answered simply, "It won't ... as far as results, it will have no bearing going forward."

When asked about the distribution of Buehler's innings, Roberts was equally clear.

"When you're taking a little bit of a long view, we can control him more in the minor leagues," he said. "We don't have flexibility [with the Dodgers]; we do in the minor leagues."

No matter where they use him, here's guessing he will be kept strictly as a starter, and will not undergo the many transitions of the last young Dodgers pitcher with this much buzz, former phenom Julio Urias, who was moved from starter to reliever and back again with seemingly no clear plan before suffering a shoulder injury last June.

This will represent one of the Dodgers' toughest tests of the summer. They must walk the tightrope between pitching Walker Buehler infrequently enough to protect his arm, but just enough to keep him ready for the championship run.

It will be a careful yet cacophonous trip.

Just listen.

Get more of Bill Plaschke's work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke

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