Walker Buehler didn’t watch Game 2 of the World Series live. He departed Logan International Airport a half-hour before the first pitch was thrown at Fenway Park on Wednesday and landed about a half-hour after Craig Kimbrel secured the final out in a 4-2 victory for the Boston Red Sox. He did, however, purchase the in-flight WiFi to follow along as his team plunged to a 2-0 series deficit.
He went unrecognized by his fellow travelers. He claimed he kept his emotions subdued during the cross-country misery.
“I was pretty polite,” Buehler recalled on Thursday.
Buehler flew ahead of his team in preparation for the next checkpoint in his increasingly challenging rookie season: Game 3 at Dodger Stadium on Friday night. It does not qualify as the must-win event he and his teammates overcame in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against the Milwaukee Brewers, but the import is not far off.
“For us, right now,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “it’s a game we really need to win.”
Friday will not be the first time the Dodgers will rely on the poised 24-year-old Buehler to perform in a high-stakes spot after a season spent digging out of holes. They turned to him every five days down the regular season’s stretch to help keep them afloat in the National League West race. He responded with one of baseball’s best second halves, tapping into his ace-level potential, which supplied the confidence to give him the ball in Game 163 to seal the division title before going to him in their first road playoff game and again on the road in Milwaukee with the season on the line last week.
Buehler didn’t pitch out of the fifth inning in that outing, but he limited the Brewers to one run and six hits, didn’t issue a walk, and struck out seven across 4 2/3 innings. It was the shortest start of his three in these playoffs, but he gave up nine runs in the previous two — both losses. Last week, he kept the Dodgers in the game — and helped keep their season alive.
“Any time you’re in situations like that,” Buehler said, “the more you can get there and live it yourself, it does nothing but help you.”
The Red Sox will counter Buehler with another right-hander, Rick Porcello, after both clubs started lefties in the first two games. Porcello will pitch on eight days’ rest — he last pitched in Game 4 of the ALCS on Oct. 17 and gave up four runs in four innings.
The switch to right-handed starters will have a more significant impact on the Dodgers’ lineup. After going with the same all-right configuration in the first two games, Roberts will adjust, inserting Joc Pederson, Max Muncy, and Cody Bellinger into the lineup. Pederson will lead off, Roberts said Thursday.
If the Dodgers also start Yasmani Grandal at catcher over Austin Barnes — Grandal hasn’t started since Game 3 of the NLCS after a string of poor performances — then they’ll start their top four home run hitters for the first time in the World Series. It has been the Dodgers’ more potent lineup all season, though a few midseason acquisitions bolstered the right-heavy configuration since the beginning of September.
“We’re not swinging the bats as far as the right-handers right now against the lefty, lineup,” Roberts said. “Tomorrow you’ll see a different lineup.”
The biggest lineup change for the Red Sox will be moving J.D. Martinez, their prolific designated hitter, to the outfield in a National League park — if he’s deemed healthy enough for the assignment. Martinez is battling a sore ankle after slipping on second base in Game 1.
“He felt better today walking around,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said Thursday. “He got treatment on the way here. He’s going to get treatment tomorrow morning. In the afternoon we’ll make a decision.”
Martinez hasn’t played the field since he manned right field Sept. 28. If he plays right field Friday, Mookie Betts probably will move to center field, pushing Jackie Bradley Jr., the ALCS MVP, to the bench. Another speculated possibility was shifting Betts to second base — he began his professional career at that spot — but Cora dismissed that possibility.
Betts and Martinez are two top American League MVP candidates — Betts is considered the favorite to win it — and the two most dangerous threats Buehler will face Friday. Both have fueled Boston’s attack in the World Series; Betts is four for eight with a double and three runs scored from the leadoff spot, while Martinez is three for seven with a double, a walk, and four RBIs.
The Dodgers’ latest excavation mission begins with limiting those two menaces. The task falls on Buehler, their confident battle-tested rookie.