From wondering aloud whether the rotation order matters to offering the opinion that people make too big a deal about who pitches when, Walker Buehler did what he could to downplay the significance of his assignment.
Buehler was chosen over Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu to start for the Dodgers on Thursday in Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals.
Nothing Buehler said could obscure the magnitude of news that was announced by manager Dave Roberts on the eve of the series opener.
This was more than a simple reshuffling of the rotation. This was a change of the guard. This was a shift in franchise doctrine.
Buehler has become The Guy.
The designation monopolized by Kershaw over the last decade now belongs to the slight-but-brash 25-year-old right-hander born and raised in Kentucky.
If any confusion over that remained in the wake of Buehler being named the Game 1 starter, clarity was provided by Roberts’ explanation of how the decision was made.
“We just felt that with Walker getting an opportunity to pitch the first game, also potentially a Game 5, gives us the best chance to win,” Roberts said, “regardless of opponent.”
Regardless of opponent.
That’s the kind of statement that used to be made about Kershaw. Didn’t matter whom the Dodgers were playing or where. Kershaw was the No. 1 starter.
Ryu started instead of Kershaw last year in Game 1 of a NLDS against the Atlanta Braves, but that was more of a case of the front office wanting to show off its creativity. The pitchers’ rest and Kershaw’s availability to start in a potential Game 5 were considered.
This was different. This was a coronation of a new king.
The decision has symbolic importance to a franchise that’s foundation is drafting and developing its own players. Selected in the first round of the 2015 draft, Buehler was the first player chosen by the Dodgers under current scouting director Billy Gasparino.
Of course, that by itself doesn’t make the decision to start Buehler in Game 1 the right one. Symbolism won’t win the Dodgers a World Series. Buehler, Kershaw and Ryu pitching well might. Roberts still hasn’t revealed the order in which Kershaw and Ryu will follow Buehler in the rotation.
“It’s about starting pitching,” Roberts said. “You’re talking a lot in recent postseasons about bullpenning and third time through [the batting order] and all that kind of stuff. But if you look at the Nationals, the Astros and us, it’s heavy reliance this year on starting pitching.”
Starting pitching could very well determine this series.
The most dominant stretches of their 106-win season coincided with periods in which Buehler, Kershaw and Ryu routinely made six-plus- or seven-inning starts.
If they are pitching into the seventh or eighth innings of games, they should win handily.
Their recent track records could be a source of concern.
Buehler finished the season with a 14-4 record and 3.26 earned-run average, but he failed to pitch more than five innings in three of his last five starts. He posted a 4.50 ERA in September.
He tinkered with his delivery late in the season, but minimized the effect that had on his performance.
“I’m nowhere different than I am all year,” he said. “I tinker all the time and maybe it is my nervous tick and that’s what gets me going.”
Ryu failed to complete five innings in any of the three starts he made over a stretch that started in late August and extended into early September. He went seven innings in each of his last three starts, however.
The argument for starting Ryu in Game 2 can be found in his uneven home and road splits, as he has a 1.93 ERA at Dodger Stadium and 2.72 elsewhere.
The case to send Kershaw to the mound in Game 2 is that he could be used as a reliever in a potential Game 5. Starting Game 3 wouldn’t eliminate that as a possibility. However, starting in Game 2 would allow him to pitch in relief in Game 5 on four days’ rest.
Kershaw prepared for the role by pitching a scoreless inning in relief in the regular-season finale. The 31-year-old finished the season at 16-5 with a 3.03 ERA.
Rich Hill remains tentatively scheduled to pitch Game 4, if necessary.
The Nationals have a Big Three of their own, but their rotation was slightly compromised in their victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday in the wild card game.
In addition to Max Scherzer, the Nationals used Stephen Strasburg in relief for three innings.
Left-hander Patrick Corbin will start for the Nationals in Game 1. Nationals manager Dave Martinez hasn’t named a Game 2 starter, but his options are 35-year-old Anibal Sanchez and Strasburg, who would be pitching on two days’ rest after throwing 34 pitches against the Brewers.
If Buehler outpitches Corbin on Thursday, the Nationals will be in real trouble.
Buehler thrived in similar circumstances last year. He was dominant when the Dodgers defeated the Colorado Rockies in a tiebreaking 163rd regular-season game to determine the NL West championship. He was the starting pitcher in Game 7 of the NLCS, in which the Dodgers downed the Brewers to advance to the World Series. And he delivered seven scoreless innings against the Boston Red Sox in Game 3 of the World Series.
The performances confirmed the front office’s belief that Buehler would eventually be The Guy. He’s become that. This month will determine if he can remain that.