Walker Buehler turns up electricity with 11 strikeouts as Dodgers beat Rockies
Getting a rare day off, Mookie Betts joined the Dodgers’ TV broadcast in the second inning Friday night for an interview, fielding questions about his “spa day,” as manager Dave Roberts called it, and his strong start to the season.
Then the topic turned to Walker Buehler. Betts’ mind immediately flashed back to two Octobers prior.
Still a member of the Boston Red Sox then, Betts was on the receiving end of one of Buehler’s signature career moments. In Game 3 of the 2018 World Series, the pitcher silenced the Red Sox’s lineup in a scoreless seven-inning, seven-strikeout Fall Classic spectacle, a night that showcased just how special — how sensational — the right-hander can be.
“His stuff is electric,” Betts said. “To this day, it was probably the best pitching game I’ve ever been a part of.”
For much of Friday, Buehler showed similarly dominant form, putting an end to his early-season struggles with an emphatic six-inning, one-run, 11-strikeout display in the Dodgers’ 5-1 win over the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium, the first-place Dodgers’ ninth win in 10 games.
It was peak Buehler for long stretches.
The heavily favored Dodgers’ reward for winning an eighth straight division title would be negligible, especially if the playoffs are held in a neutral bubble.
An upper-90s fastball lasered to all corners of the zone. A knee-buckling curveball that disappeared as it reached the plate. A cutter and two-seamer that ran away from bats and kept Rockies hitters off-balance. An unshakable calm and unmistakable confidence accompanying every pitch.
The 26-year-old hardly even needed his slider. The rest of his arsenal was that good, allowing him to get ahead in counts (67 of his 92 pitches were strikes) and put away his opponents with familiar ease (he recorded double-digit strikeouts for the eighth time in his career).
“I was just kind of tired of being [lousy] to be honest,” Buehler said. “I don’t really know how else to say it. Sorry for the language. I was just kind of tired of it.”
Key plays from the Dodgers’ 5-1 victory over the Rockies on Friday night.
Indeed, Buehler’s first four starts this year were a battle. His command was off. His breaking balls weren’t generating many whiffs. And his numbers were out of whack, marked by an ERA that was greater than five as well as walk and home run rates that had more than doubled from last year.
But all along, Roberts maintained Buehler just needed more time. Over summer quarantine, the pitcher hadn’t thrown as much as some of the team’s other starters. During last month’s training camp, his main focus was simply on building up his stamina.
“With Walker, we knew it was a slow ramp-up,” Roberts said. “We knew it was going to take time.”
Buehler finally seemed to be at full force Friday, getting more than enough offensive support to earn his first win of the campaign. The Dodgers (20-8) took the lead in the first on a Cody Bellinger RBI double, added three more in the fourth on a Matt Beaty RBI single and Corey Seager two-run double, and ended the night with eight players in the hit column.
The Rockies (13-13), meanwhile, failed to reach base their first time through the order, opening the game with 11 consecutive outs before Charlie Blackmon’s fourth-inning single. By then, Buehler was well into a groove. At one point, he struck out nine of 12 batters. Over the first five innings, only three balls left the infield.
“I haven’t had that choose-what-I-want-to-do-with-it kind of feeling. I had that more tonight,” Buehler said. “For me, that’s a huge thing, being able to change speeds since most of the stuff I throw is around the same velo.”
Buelher finally ran into trouble in the sixth, conceding three consecutive one-out singles to allow his first run. But then, even after Trevor Story stole second to put two runners in scoring position with only one out, Buehler fanned Blackmon with a curveball in the dirt and induced an inning-ending fly out from Nolan Arenado deep down the line in right.
Charlie Blackmon has helped fuel the Colorado Rockies’ hot start thanks to a .424 batting average, but ending the season at .400 is not his goal.
Buehler bit down on his Dodger blue glove as he walked back to the dugout afterward, leaving the game for good in his longest start this season. He knew Arenado had come only a few feet short of tying the score.
Even on a night with few other complaints, he was still craving a little more perfection.
“He’s such a finely tuned machine that, to get to that optimum performance level, there are certain things that he’s got to get to,” Roberts said. “I felt that each outing, it was getting better. This one just seemed like he was primed.”
Catcher Will Smith took four at-bats in a simulated game Friday and is planned to be activated from the injured list Sunday. … Roberts believed the groin injury that landed reliever Pedro Báez on the injured list Thursday is a new problem but acknowledged the right-hander hasn’t “been 100% physically right” all season.
Three takeaways on the Dodgers
— Cody Bellinger recorded a multi-hit game and raised his season batting average above .200 for the first time since the opening week. The reigning National League MVP is now five for his last nine.
— Also for the first time this season, the Dodgers received back-to-back starts of at least six innings and no more than one run, as Buehler’s strong outing followed Clayton Kershaw’s gem Thursday in Seattle.
— With right fielder Mookie Betts getting a day off Friday, Joc Pederson batted leadoff for the ninth time this year and opened the bottom of the first with a double. Previously, he was just two for 25 from the No. 1 spot.
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