Walker Buehler strode through the Dodgers dugout, accepting high-fives from his teammates, when he heard manager Dave Roberts call out to him. Buehler spun around after seven innings of one-run baseball in a 6-1 victory over San Diego. Roberts offered a handshake and a hug. Buehler was done and the Dodgers were on their way to collecting another series victory.
The Dodgers offered Buehler enough support, with Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger each launching two-run homers in the eighth inning to provide insurance. Buehler kept safe an early advantage. He struck out eight batters and gave up four hits.
With Buehler (3-1, 2.20 earned-run average) in command, the Dodgers (24-28) won their third series in a row, including back-to-back ones against National League West opponents. They still reside in fourth place and they still own a losing record. But they are trending, ever so gently, in the right direction.
“I feel like we’re starting to get our mojo back,” Bellinger said.
Buehler has played a significant role in that reversal. He logged 31 innings across six outings in May. He has not walked a batter in three of his past four outings. He sharpened his delivery to avoid wasteful pitches and last deeper into games. “Yeah, the five-and-dive thing kind of sucks, man,” Buehler said.
Buehler has established himself as a vital member of Roberts’ rotation. The team will continue to monitor his innings throughout the season, with Buehler not expected to log much more than 150. Roberts insisted there is not a set number for Buehler’s limit. At this point, the Dodgers cannot afford to keep him stashed in the bullpen or at the complex at Camelback Ranch.
“He’s in complete command,” Roberts said.
“For us right now, we’re just looking in the near term and not trying to get too far ahead of ourselves,” he added. “Things change as the season goes. Right now, I just think we’re going to stay the course.”
The players eased into their Sunday. Joc Pederson carried a plate of donuts around the clubhouse trying to offload the cargo. Kenley Jansen strolled in with a reggae soundtrack piping out of his iPhone. Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill played catch outside. Buehler tucked a bottle of Ale-8-One ginger ale in his locker and watched “Goodfellas” on the couch.
The Dodgers entered the game with a distinct advantage. San Diego needed to empty its bullpen because it lacked a qualified starting pitcher. To start, the Padres used Matt Strahm, a left-handed pitcher who entered the day with a 4.91 ERA and nearly two runners allowed per inning. He strung together two scoreless innings against the Dodgers.
Buehler started a rally against the next Padres reliever, Adam Cimber, in the third inning. Buehler led off by rolling a single up the middle. Chris Taylor hit a cue-shot double down the right-field line. Buehler held up at third base, but scored on a single by Enrique Hernandez. Taylor scored from third base when Justin Turner bounced into a double play.
The first time Buehler faced San Diego, he completed six innings without allowing a hit en route to the first combined no-hitter in franchise history. He permitted his first hit to a Padre when Matt Kemp dropped a warning-track drive by outfielder Jose Pirela in the first inning. Buehler stranded Pirela and came back to strike out the side in the second.
“He’s got a great mentality,” Bellinger said. “He loves to come after hitters. And he’s got the stuff for it. It’s really fun playing defense behind him. He pounds the zone and he’s got electric stuff. He was pretty good for us today.”
Buehler would not permit another Padre to reach base. He iced outfielder Travis Jankowski with a 98-mph fastball on the inside corner to end the fifth. After three quick outs in the sixth, Buehler struck out the side again in the seventh. He victimized the same three batters: San Diego second baseman Cory Spangenberg swung through a slider, outfielder Franmil Reyes missed a 95-mph fastball and Galvis whiffed on another slider.
The Dodgers expanded the lead in the eighth. After a leadoff single by Taylor, Muncy destroyed an elevated changeup from Padres reliever Tyler Webb. The two-run homer landed about a dozen rows deep in the right-field pavilion. It was Muncy’s sixth home run of the season; after the game, Roberts mentioned the team using Muncy at second base to keep his bat in the lineup.
Four batters later, Bellinger tattooed an 88-mph fastball for the second two-run shot of the inning.
“This is more of us,” Buehler said. “This is what the talent in this room can do. It took a little while, but I feel like we’re getting back toward being ourselves.”