The big-league baptism of Walker Buehler — the moment when the potency of his talent intersected with the urgency of its advent with the Dodgers — occurred April 28 inside the dugout at AT&T Park.
Mired midway through its worst 40-game opening stretch since arriving in Los Angeles, the team had done something relatively rare that afternoon against the Giants: It had taken the lead. And then, in the bottom of the first inning, Yasmani Grandal watched from the bench as Buehler gave back two runs in a 35-pitch inning. He gave up a succession of singles, walked a batter, lost a wild pitch, surrendered a stolen base and allowed the San Francisco crowd to reawaken.
To Grandal, a seven-year veteran, Buehler looked tentative and unwilling to challenge hitters despite his deep arsenal of weapons. When Buehler returned to the dugout, Grandal stomped over and got in the rookie’s face.
Man up and stop messing around with these guys, Grandal said, using a couple of expletives.
Buehler received the message and nodded. He returned to the mound and did not permit another run over the next four innings. Grandal, recalling the moment five months later, cited the exchange in making a point shared by other Dodgers players and officials. In his first full season in the starting rotation, Buehler’s greatest challenge was not the hitters in front of him. It was harnessing his ability and unleashing it.
The journey culminated Monday at Dodger Stadium, when Buehler (8-5, 2.62 earned-run average) allowed only one hit and lasted into the seventh inning as the Dodgers downed the Colorado Rockies in Game 163 to capture a sixth consecutive National League West crown. The victory advanced the Dodgers to the National League Division Series, where they will host Atlanta. Buehler is expected to start Game 3.
At 24, Buehler possesses an arsenal unlike many others seen before in franchise history. His slight build draws comparisons to former San Francisco ace Tim Lincecum, but Grandal suggested Buehler pitches more like Houston star Justin Verlander. Buehler’s fastball averages 96.2 mph, according to FanGraphs. He can spin sliders and curveballs, while incorporating a 92-mph cutter and still wielding a 90-mph changeup. “It’s really a special mix,” third baseman Justin Turner said.
Buehler pairs his repertoire with a preternatural self-confidence. His teammates often wear grins when talking about him. Cody Bellinger called Buehler “cocky as hell.” After Game 163, Enrique Hernandez insisted Buehler had earned the right to “be as arrogant as he wants.” When a reporter stopped by Grandal’s locker in September to ask about Buehler, the catcher snorted.
“He hasn’t talked about himself enough?” Grandal said.
Buehler makes no apologies for his demeanor. He delights in jawing with teammates and displays weapons-grade sarcasm. He also can take a joke: One day in September, as Buehler showed off a pair of cleats, Grandal snatched the shoes and tossed them in a clubhouse trash bin. “Nice cleats, Ferris,” Grandal said as Buehler cackled while retrieving them.
“I’m not going to be the guy who is first there, leaves last, bumps everybody up,” Buehler said. “But I think every team needs some guys who want to talk ... and have fun.”
He added, “I don’t think anybody would say I’m a bad teammate. But I don’t think I’m going to win any best teammate awards.”
For the Dodgers, his presence in the clubhouse matters less than his performance on the mound. Buehler made his first big-league start April 23 against Miami. He logged five scoreless innings, but chided himself for needing 26 pitches to collect the first three outs. When the inefficiency occurred again in San Francisco, Grandal intervened in the dugout.
“When he first got up here — he’s obviously a pretty smart guy — but sometimes he’s too smart for his own good,” Grandal said. “I think he would get on the mound and try to strike everybody out.”
Grandal was not the only voice in Buehler’s ear. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt offered a similar message — in more soothing terms than the caustic catcher. Honeycutt preached the value of soft contact, which can shorten at-bats and lengthen outings.
In Buehler’s next start, he spun six innings of a combined no-hitter against San Diego. He logged 31 innings in five May starts despite never throwing more than 97 pitches. His season was derailed, temporarily, by a microfracture in his rib cage from a line drive. He returned after the All-Star break and recaptured his momentum.
The Dodgers began to treat Buehler like their staff ace in the final month of the season, pairing him with Clayton Kershaw for every major series. Buehler answered the call. In his last 11 starts, he posted a 1.58 ERA with 80 strikeouts in 68⅓ innings. He logged at least six innings in nine of those outings.
“What I’ve liked about him during this stretch is his real ability to make quality pitches,” Honeycutt said. “Not just hard or overpowering. He’s actually pitching. And that’s what’s scary good about him.”
Buehler ended the season with a flourish in Game 163. He needed only three strikeouts to last 6⅔ innings. His command was shaky but his resolve was not. He looked the furthest thing from tentative.
“As incredible of a performance as it was, we’ve almost come to expect that from the way he’s pitched down the stretch,” general manager Farhan Zaidi said. “That’s the highest compliment that you can pay somebody: that he can pitch that way, and have us be not surprised by it.”