The first baseball Walker Buehler fired Thursday was to a fan in the first row of the reserve level at Dodger Stadium. He launched it up there from left field before stepping into the bullpen to warm up for Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals. A kid with a baseball mitt caught it.
As the crowd thickened and the atmosphere grew more tense, Buehler was relaxed and ready.
He was tabbed to start the game, over Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu, because the Dodgers believe in that moxie and his talent. They saw his ability to prevail on big stages in Game 163 and in the World Series a year ago. They wanted the confident 25-year-old right-hander, fresh off his first full major league season, to start twice if the series reaches five games. They believe he gives them the best chance to win even after an unsteady September.
Buehler delivered on that promise Thursday, outdueling Dodgers nemesis Patrick Corbin with six scoreless innings in a 6-0 victory Max Muncy helped fuel with another clutch playoff performance.
The right-hander held the Nationals to one hit. He compiled eight strikeouts to three walks and threw 100 pitches, extending his postseason scoreless streak to 162/3 innings, before passing the baton to the Dodgers’ overhauled bullpen. Adam Kolarek, Kenta Maeda and Joe Kelly limited the Nationals to one hit over the final three innings.
“If you know Walker, it’s not surprising,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “He’s very, very, very, very, very confident in himself. He loves it. He thrives in these situations, and you saw it again tonight.”
Corbin, meanwhile, gave up a run in the first inning on four walks to sink the Nationals into a hole in his first career playoff start. He rebounded to keep the Dodgers off the board until first baseman Howie Kendrick’s second error, on a 96-mph ground ball off Muncy’s bat, allowed the Dodgers’ second run to score in the fifth inning. Corbin surrendered the two runs and three hits, striking out nine and walking five.
His departure after 107 pitches afforded the Dodgers an opportunity to exploit the Nationals’ underbelly — middle relief — and they did not squander it. With the bases loaded in the seventh inning, Muncy smacked a two-out, two-run single off 42-year-old Fernando Rodney to give the Dodgers a 4-0 cushion and their first hit with runners in scoring position in seven tries.
“I just think that the at-bat quality he’s done all year has been unbelievable,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He just keeps having good at-bats.”
Gavin Lux widened the margin in the eighth inning with a home run off right-hander Hunter Strickland in his first career postseason plate appearance, becoming the youngest player in franchise history — at 21 years and 314 days old — to homer in the postseason. Joc Pederson added a blast off the right-field foul pole screen later in the inning to cement the win.
The Dodgers took the field for their first game since Sunday and first high-stakes game all season. The Nationals traversed a different path.
Washington, at 19-31, owned the third-worst record in the National League on May 23. Manager Dave Martinez’s seat was hot. Some wondered whether a fire sale of the club’s high-end talent was imminent. They were forced to play with urgency every day. That was the nadir before they emphatically rebounded and and finished the season on a 74-38 run.
The sprint to Thursday forced the Nationals, riding a nine-game winning streak, to use Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in their win in Tuesday’s wild-card game. Without the right-handers available, Corbin was left to make his first playoff start to open the series.
It was a promising matchup for Corbin. The former member of the Arizona Diamondbacks had held the Dodgers to two runs in 301/3 innings over five starts since the start of 2018. He throws his elite slider constantly and regularly elicits bad swings with it. The Dodgers’ objective was capitalize on the ones he left up in the strike zone. Their patience was enough to produce a run in the first inning.
Corbin began his outing by walking A.J. Pollock. He struck out the next two batters, but walked the following two to load the bases for Muncy. After throwing a ball to Muncy to begin the at-bat, he got a visit from pitching coach Paul Menhart. The discussion did not reverse Corbin’s troubles. He walked Muncy to push home the game’s first run. He wiggled free when Corey Seager grounded out.
“Tonight it just didn’t seem like he had his command,” Muncy said, “and we did a really good job of not chasing balls out of the zone.”
The Dodgers didn’t threaten again until the fourth inning. Muncy and Seager sparked the danger with consecutive singles. But Corbin retired the next three batters to keep the Nationals within a run. Their luck expired in the fifth when Kendrick couldn’t handle Muncy’s ground ball.
The two runs were ample for Buehler.
His first pitch of the night was a 98-mph fastball — his first of 47 fastballs — just off the plate to Trea Turner. The adrenaline was rushing, but he quickly discovered the rhythm he was seeking in his final regular-season outing. After that start last Friday, Buehler, never afraid to experiment, said he was “tinkering” with his delivery. He was sure he would find it.
“Just kind of a reset button for me,” Buehler said.
Buehler faced the minimum over three innings before suddenly losing his command in the fourth and issuing three walks to load the bases with two outs for Asdrubal Cabrera. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt appeared for a chat to establish a plan to attack the veteran infielder. The result was consecutive curveballs. Cabrera tapped the second one back to Buehler. He underhanded the ball to first and pounded his glove in delight.
“From that first throw,” Roberts said, “he was on point tonight.”