Walker Buehler took the ball Friday night against the San Francisco Giants unsure when he will pitch again. He knows his next start for the Dodgers will be in one of the first three games of the National League Division Series. Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu will start the other two. But the order remains undetermined.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said the rotation for the series will be decided after meeting with the three pitchers Sunday morning following Ryu’s final regular-season start Saturday. Game 1 is slated for Thursday at Dodger Stadium against the winner of Tuesday’s wild-card game.
Buehler is in the running for the Game 1 nod, which usually means also starting the win-or-go-home Game 5 if necessary, because he possesses the most overpowering stuff of the trio. When he’s in sync, he’s usually dominant. But inconsistency has pestered him this season.
The right-hander concluded his campaign in the Dodgers’ 9-2 win at Oracle Park with an inefficient but effective five-inning performance. He limited the Giants to two runs and recorded eight strikeouts but threw 104 pitches and issued four walks. Buehler finished the season 14-4 with a 3.26 earned-run average in 182-2/3 innings over 30 starts.
“Tonight, it was just all about the command,” Roberts said.
The Dodgers supplied Buehler a cushion immediately with a power display in a five-run second inning. First, Cody Bellinger padded his most-valuable-player resume with his 47th home run. Corey Seager slugged the next pitch from right-hander Johnny Cueto — the first he saw since tweaking his hamstring Wednesday — over the right-field wall. The blast gave the Dodgers back-to-back home runs for the 17th time this season, setting the National League record. They are one short of tying the MLB record established by the Seattle Mariners in 1996.
Gavin Lux added an RBI triple, and Joc Pederson belted a ball into McCovey Cove for a two-run home run to complete the outburst. The Dodgers tacked on four runs in the eighth inning to run away with their 104th victory, tying the organization’s most in a season since moving to Los Angeles in 1958. They would set the franchise record with wins Saturday and Sunday.
The Giants, meanwhile, couldn’t capitalize on opportunities; San Francisco went 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position and left 17 runners on base.
The result pulled the Dodgers ahead of the New York Yankees by one game in the race for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs should the teams meet in the World Series. The Houston Astros remain one game ahead.
But the Dodgers, who were without Justin Turner for the third straight game as he deals with back trouble, could not emerge without another injury scare. The latest arose in the fifth inning when left-hander Sam Selman hit A.J. Pollock with a pitch on the side of his left knee. Pollock limped down the first base line before exiting the game. But X-rays on Pollock’s knee were negative — signaling an averted crisis. Roberts said he won’t play Saturday but could play Sunday.
Buehler’s outing capped an uneven September. In five starts he allowed 14 runs in 28 innings (4.50 ERA) and logged more than five innings twice. The results prompted Buehler, unafraid of experimentation, to fiddle with his mechanics. He studied video from his performance in Game 163 for the division title last season against the Colorado Rockies. He said he wants to quicken his tempo. He insisted he expected some inconsistency. The point is to find consistency before next week.
“This is what I do, I tinker,” Buehler said. “I think when I give myself a little something new to think about, sometimes it simplifies everything for me.”
When Buehler finds a rhythm, he is untouchable. He posted double-digit strikeouts in six of his 30 starts this season. In five of those games, he didn’t walk a batter. A fastball in the upper 90s as the centerpiece to a deep repertoire can lift his ceiling to an ace-like level.
Other variables will factor into how the Dodgers assemble their NLDS rotation. The opponent is one, though the Dodgers can only narrow it down to two teams before Tuesday night. Location and rest time also could matter.
Last year, the club decided to start Ryu in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves over Kershaw after Buehler was needed to start Game 163. This year, the three days off between the regular season and playoffs gives the Dodgers the opportunity to lineup the rotation as they please.
All three have been better at Dodger Stadium than on the road. Ryu’s ERA splits are the most drastic — from 1.93 to 2.95 — but Buehler posted the highest road ERA of the trio (3.66).
All three would start Game 1 on at least the conventional four days’ rest, but holding Kershaw or Buehler out of the first two games would generate an extended absence that could affect performance.
Kershaw, who started Thursday, would go on six days’ rest if he is tapped for Game 1. Splits based on days’ rest can be misleading — a plethora of variables can distort the small sample sizes — but the left-hander compiled a 2.62 ERA in seven starts with that much time between outings this season.
Buehler would start Game 1 on five days’ rest, Game 2 with six days off, and Game 3 on eight days’ rest. The numbers suggest he was significantly worse this season on six or more days’ rest. But those statistics can be deceptive. They don’t always translate. The postseason is different; the intensity swells and the variables change. The Dodgers are well aware of that.