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Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler struggles in 2019 debut

Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler struggles in 2019 debut
Pitcher Walker Buehler tosses the ball in apparent frustration during the fourth inning of the Dodgers' 8-7 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A baseball cradled in his right hand, Walker Buehler stood atop the mound in the fourth inning of the Dodgers’ 8-7 victory over Arizona on Sunday at Dodger Stadium, the sight of so many of his triumphs in 2018.

It was here that he pitched the Dodgers to a sixth consecutive National League West title in Game 163 and afterward swore into a live microphone. It was here that he stymied the Milwaukee Brewers and the Boston Red Sox in the postseason. It was here that he looked like a pitcher capable of usurping Clayton Kershaw’s place atop the Dodgers rotation.

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His first act of the 2019 season lacked the jubilation of his outings as a rookie. Buehler held the baseball during that fourth inning until manager Dave Roberts came to retrieve it. Roberts removed Buehler with no outs in the frame, but with Buehler responsible for five runs scored by the Diamondbacks. After making only one start during spring training, Buehler displayed ragged command of his fastball and allowed Arizona to pester him into an early exit.

“I wouldn’t put too much into the spring,” Buehler said. “I got my work in, and feel good with where I’m at. Obviously, I’ll keep building on that. It’s a long season, and you want to improve.”

The damage occurred exclusively in the fourth inning, but Buehler showed signs of imprecision throughout his outing. His fastball hummed at its customary average of 97 mph, but he generated only two swinging strikes. He did not record a strikeout. In 23 starts last season, Buehler struck out at least two batters each time.

One outing should not dim the spotlight that figures to follow Buehler this season. But his performance outlined how difficult it might be to repeat his rookie campaign, in which he posted a 2.62 earned-run average and struck out 151 batters in 137 1/3 innings. By the time the postseason began, Roberts openly referred to Buehler as the team’s most potent weapon on the mound, as Kershaw adapts to his diminishing fastball.

Kershaw has yet to pitch in 2019. He will make a rehab start this week for double-A Tulsa or triple-A Oklahoma City as he recovers from inflammation in his shoulder, which appeared in February. Rich Hill joined Kershaw on the injured list when he dinged his knee later in camp. And Buehler operated at a measured pace at Camelback Ranch as he dealt with a physical malady; Roberts acknowledged in March that Buehler “wasn’t really feeling right” when he reported to camp.

To keep Buehler safe, the organization held him out of games until March 19. He logged 2 1/3 innings in his spring opener and then pitched in a simulated situation last week. The Dodgers trusted him enough to start him against Arizona despite a lack of live competition. The team expected him to throw five innings Sunday.

Buehler sailed through three innings, even as his fastball failed to cooperate. The pitch was still sturdy enough to generate five groundouts and foil a bunt attempt by the opposing pitcher, Luke Weaver.

From the dugout, Roberts noted the encouraging readings from the radar gun. The slowest four-seam fastball from Buehler registered at 95.8 mph, and his cutter touched 96.2, according to PITCHf/x data. Yet, despite the velocity, the Diamondbacks did not looked overwhelmed.

“That goes to execution,” Roberts said. “These guys nowadays can time a bullet.”

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts (30), takes starting pitcher Walker Buehler out of the game during the fourth inning of Sunday's 8-7 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts (30), takes starting pitcher Walker Buehler out of the game during the fourth inning of Sunday's 8-7 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

The veneer cracked in the fourth inning. Buehler lost the command of his fastball. The first batter of the inning, infielder Ildemaro Vargas, doubled on an elevated, 96-mph fastball. Vargas scored when David Peralta redirected a 97-mph fastball up the middle. Buehler lost an eight-pitch struggle with outfielder Adam Jones, who fouled off five fastballs before dunking a sixth into center field.

“That got him a little bit,” Roberts said.

The Dodgers still led by three runs, but the advantage would soon evaporate. Buehler spiked a curveball in the dirt and the runners advanced. Buehler walked Jake Lamb on four pitches. Two runs scored when Ketel Marte punched a 96-mph fastball through the right side of the infield.

Buehler displayed little emotion as he left the diamond. He received no aid from the bullpen. Pedro Baez promptly gave up a two-run double to Nick Ahmed and a two-run home run to Weaver. It was up to the offense to bail out the pitchers, staging an eighth-inning rally to capture the series and removing the sting from Buehler’s outing.

“I’m not worried about my stuff and my arm,” Buehler said. “I just didn’t set them up the right way. I didn’t put pitches where I needed to get the swing and miss. We’ll look at it and move forward.”

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