A cascade of bullpen meltdowns that led to a stunning loss to the Washington Nationals in Wednesday night’s National League Division Series Game 5 wasn’t the only reason Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler fought back tears as he addressed the media afterward.
“I lost an aunt two days ago,” Buehler said, his voice choking with emotion as players packed equipment bags and taped up boxes around him, a 106-win season ending in sudden-death fashion, long before the Dodgers expected.
“I kind of put it on a back burner, and then to have it end like this … it’s just tough. It’s hard when you look at a Game 5, winner-take-all, and for it to work out the way it did is just different.
“It’s one thing if we got our ass beat. That’s not how this game happened. This is one of the more special teams you’ll ever see in this clubhouse. We won 108 games. Most of the time, that gets you past where we eventually got to.”
The Dodgers must find answers to several difficult questions as they sift through the rubble of a 7-3 loss in which starter-turned-reliever Clayton Kershaw gave up homers to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto to tie the score in the eighth inning and setup man Joe Kelly gave up a decisive 10th-inning grand slam to Howie Kendrick.
Do they try to retain veteran free-agent starters Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill with young guns Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin waiting in the wings? Do they still have faith in closer Kenley Jansen? Will Andrew Friedman return as president of baseball operations (he’s not under contract past this season)?
Who the ace of their pitching staff is moving forward is not a question.
If there was any doubt that Buehler didn’t seize that label from Kershaw during a regular season in which the 25-year-old right-hander went 14-4 with a 3.26 ERA in 30 starts, striking out 215 and walking 37 in 182 1/3 innings, it was erased in these playoffs.
Buehler allowed one hit over six scoreless innings, striking out eight and walking three, in a 6-0 victory over the Nationals in Game 1, and he was even better in Game 5 on Wednesday night.
If Nationals veteran Max Scherzer “emptied the tank,” as he said, in a gallant seven-inning, 109-pitch effort in Game 4 on Monday night, then Buehler drained his tank and a reserve tank as well while outpitching Washington ace Stephen Strasburg in Game 5.
Buehler threw a career-high 117 pitches — 74 for strikes — over 6 2/3 innings, limiting the Nationals to one run and four hits. He struck out seven, walked three and was so amped by the energy pulsating through Dodger Stadium that his fastball still registered 97 mph in the seventh inning.
Though he relied mostly on a four-seam fastball that averaged 97.2 mph and a slider that averaged 87.9 mph, Buehler mixed in curveballs (82.0 mph), two-seam fastballs (96.1) and cut-fastballs (93.2).
The only run Buehler gave up came in the sixth inning when Rendon led off with a double to left field and scored on Soto’s single to right to pull Washington to within 3-1.
Buehler minimized the damage by getting Kendrick to bounce into a 4-6-3 double play and striking out Ryan Zimmerman with a nasty slider to end the inning.
“He was incredible, man,” NL most valuable player candidate Cody Bellinger said of Buehler. “He has electric stuff and knows how to use it. He loves the big moment. He loves being the dude on the mound, and he shows it every time. Tip your cap to Buehler. He gave it all today. He was a beast on the mound.”
Buehler’s previous high pitch count was 111 in a June 21 win over Colorado. He seemed fully prepared, mentally and physically, to pass that number Wednesday night.
“It’s the playoffs,” Buehler said. “I’d throw 150 pitches if they asked me to.”
Buehler was pulled after issuing a two-out walk to Trea Turner to put runners on first and second in the seventh. What was Buehler thinking as he handed the ball to Kershaw with a 3-1 lead?
“That we’re home free,” he said. “But that’s baseball. There’s no explanation, no questioning anything. We lost it late, and it happens. We’ve lost games like that before, just not a Game 5.”
Kershaw struck out Adam Eaton on three pitches to end the seventh but was tagged for the two homers in the eighth. Kelly pitched a scoreless ninth but didn’t have the same command in the 10th.
After losing to Houston in a seven-game World Series in 2017 and Boston in a five-game World Series in 2018, the Dodgers’ championship drought grew to 31 years Wednesday night. But Buehler was still able to maintain perspective amid the frustration and disappointment of the loss and heartbreak over his aunt.
“It’s almost like a nightmare, isn’t it?” a reporter asked Buehler.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Buehler said. “You know, we get to play a game for a living and make a lot of money, and we get to be around some really cool guys. It’s a lot better than a 9-to-5.
“But at the same time … I think it’s kind of well known that we have a really special clubhouse. We probably form bonds that are hard to explain, and ending it this way is tough. These end-of-season losses feel really bad.”