As the game was slowly collapsing around his young shoulders Sunday night, debris piling up, chanting fans closing in, Walker Buehler turned to his puzzled infielders with one last show of his renowned confidence.
“We’re fine,” he shouted.
Only this time, he wasn’t. Only this time, his words drifted into the thick air and disappeared into the hostile night.
This time, the kid with everything had nothing.
He couldn’t find his composure. He couldn’t find his focus. And, my goodness, he couldn’t find the stinking strike zone.
This time, reality bit, taking a chunk out of the growing Dodgers legend of Walker Buehler while biting into a National League Division Series with the Atlanta Braves that is suddenly closer than it should be.
Before his second-inning pronouncement, Buehler had walked Nick Markakis on four pitches, given up a bloop single to Ozzie Albies on a 2-and-0 pitch, intentionally walked Charlie Culberson and walked pitcher Sean Newcomb with the bases loaded for the game’s first run.
Five pitches after that pronouncement, he threw a fastball that Ronald Acuna Jr. ripped into the left-field stands at SunTrust Park for a grand slam to give the Braves a 5-0 lead that eventually became a 6-5 Game 3 victory, shortening the Dodgers lead to 2-1 in the best-of-five series.
After which, the kid who never seems to lose it made an honest admission.
“Sometimes you just lose it,” Buehler said.
He didn’t officially lose the game, as the Dodgers tied it 5-5 before Freddie Freeman’s home run against Alex Wood in the sixth inning provided the Braves with the margin of victory.
But Buehler did lose an air of invincibility honed from being the Dodgers’ biggest big-game pitcher in recent weeks. Moving forward, he lost any argument that this 24-year-old should be considered a postseason anchor.
However, perspective was gained, everyone reminded that he’s still a rookie, this is October, this was his first playoff start and can we all just chill on the superman stuff?
“This is a sport and it’s tough sometimes,” Buehler said.
Buehler had been gone from the game for a couple of hours before it ended, yet immediately afterward in the clubhouse he was still in full uniform, honorably waiting to face the music of the media, arms crossed, fully accountable.
Give him credit for not ducking questions and for taking full blame even though he didn’t deserve it. Outside of the second inning, he didn’t allow any Braves to reach base in his five innings.
Give him credit for talking as much about his defeat as he does about his wins.
He said, “This one’s on me.”
He said, “There’s no excuse for the second inning, but we’ll learn from it.”
He said: “We’ll fix it, I’ll be better, that’s it.”
Manager Dave Roberts agreed that Buehler lost it, but also found it.
“He did lose his focus, I think, in that point in time,” said Roberts.
And in the beginning, the focus seemed so fine. Buehler took the mound having given up two runs in his last 26 2/3 innings spanning four stars, with an 0.67 earned-run average since Sept. 14. He also authored a brilliant outing in Game 163, giving up one hit to the Colorado Rockies in 62/3 innings for the win that put the Dodgers in this NLDS.
The kid was the man, and when he breezed through the first inning while retiring the Braves on five pitches, it seemed like his roll would continue.
But then he began the second inning by throwing four consecutive balls to Markakis. He struck out Johan Camargo and seemed to settle, but then threw two balls in his first four pitches to Kurt Suzuki before striking him out.
Then up stepped Albies and you knew he was in trouble when he went ball one, ball two, again. Albies popped a fastball over the infield for a hit and when Cody Bellinger botched the bouncer in center field, runners went to second and third.
Culberson was intentionally walked to load the bases because career-.042-hitting pitcher Newcomb was up. But with Buehler out of sorts, Newcomb might as well have been Babe Ruth, as he was walked on four pitches that had Buehler fidgeting, fussing, twisting his neck, pulling on his pants, trying to find himself.
“We’re athletes and we’re moving pretty quick and this is a big stage and there’s a lot to it,” Buehler said. “Sometimes you overthrow or you’re not looking at the right things, you’re not thinking about the right things in the moments, sometimes you get away with it, sometimes you don’t.”
This time, he didn’t. After three consecutive balls to Acuna, he threw a called strike, then Acuna struck. The crack of the bat was loud, and the ensuing roar from the largest crowd in this stadium’s two-year history was even louder as the ball dinted the left-field stands for a grand slam.
Buehler composed himself to end the inning by retiring Ender Inciarte on a grounder, and then threw three hitless innings, because, of course he did.
“If you can’t walk a guy and walk in a run and be on national TV and embarrass yourself and still can’t figure it out after that, I don’t think you belong here,” he said. “Obviously, the 3-1 fastball to Acuna could say I don’t belong here … but I don’t believe that’s the case. I’m excited to pitch in this atmosphere again, and we’ll do better.”
I believe him. Anybody who has watched him blaze through his rookie season must believe him.
Yes, he was right, he’s fine.