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Walker Buehler lauds Dodgers bullpen rather than explain his command issues

Dodgers starter Walker Buehler pitches against the San Diego Padres in Game 1 of the NLDS at Globe Life Field
Dodgers starter Walker Buehler pitches against the San Diego Padres in Game 1 of the NLDS at Globe Life Field.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Walker Buehler was on the ropes, absorbing blow after self-inflicted blow, his sudden loss of control in the second inning of the National League Division Series opener threatening to take the Dodgers down with him.

His blazing fastball darting up, down, inside and outside the strike zone and his knuckle-curve often bouncing in the dirt, the right-hander walked three of the first four batters in the second, loading the bases for the San Diego Padres with one out.

Buehler appeared to right himself, blowing a 2-and-2 fastball at 98 mph by Jurickson Profar for a strikeout. Then he threw three straight balls to leadoff man Trent Grisham.

Reliever Blake Treinen, who usually pitches in the seventh inning and beyond, was warming in the bullpen, ready to rescue Buehler, a high-leverage situation facing the Dodgers and manager Dave Roberts far earlier than expected.

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Buehler then delivered a 99-mph fastball that Grisham took for a strike. Buehler’s confidence seemed to return with a 98-mph fastball that Grisham took for another strike, running the count full.

Next came that familiar Buehler swagger. Grisham swung through a 99-mph fastball and Buehler punctuated the inning-ending strikeout with a fist pump and a primal scream that echoed throughout a mostly empty Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

It was an impressive escape act, one that preserved a scoreless tie in an eventual 5-1 Game 1 victory for the Dodgers, but when asked about it afterward, Buehler’s answer veered wildly off course, much like many of his pitches in a wobbly four-inning, one-run, two-hit, eight-strikeout, four-walk effort.

“I got lucky and made some pitches and got out of it, but honestly, before you guys ask me, I can’t — it’s hard to fathom what Dustin May, Victor [Gonzalez], Treinen and Kenley [Jansen] did to shut them down like that,” Buehler said. “It’s a testament to what we do here. I got a lot of pride in being a part of this.”

New right fielder Mookie Betts, acquired from Boston last winter, may be the biggest difference maker on these Dodgers, but a deeper, more versatile and more dominant bullpen also separates them from teams that lost the 2018 World Series to the Red Sox and were upset by Washington in the 2019 NLDS.

That was clearly evident Tuesday night when May retired all six batters he faced — three by strikeout — in the fifth and sixth innings, left-hander Gonzalez retired the side in order in the seventh, Treinen mowed through the heart of the order in the eighth and got the first out in the ninth, and Jansen got the final two outs.

The five-inning, one-hit, six-strikeout, no-walk relief effort, combined with a four-run outburst by the offense in the sixth, helped the Dodgers take command of the best-of-five series against their NL West rivals.

“Have you guys watched them, man?” Buehler said, when asked about his confidence in the bullpen. “Dustin May’s been a starting pitcher for us all year. I remember Victor Gonzalez was a starting pitcher with me [at Class-A Great Lakes] in 2016.

San Diego’s pitching problems are a borderline catastrophe, and that’s why the Dodgers overcame a sluggish night at the plate to win Game 1 of the NLDS.

“All of our guys have come up and thrown a lot of innings and got a lot of people out. And obviously Treinen has had a lot of success in other places, and we’re fortunate to have him. Then Kenley — Kenley is Kenley. At the end of the day, you hand the ball off and you feel good about what’s going to come out of there.”

May took over in the fifth and looked like he could have blanked the Padres for five innings, but Roberts pulled him after two innings and 27 pitches, preserving the hard-throwing right-hander for another relief effort later in the series or a Game 5 start if necessary.

Gonzalez induced three groundouts in the seventh before giving up a leadoff double to Grisham in the eighth and being replaced by Treinen.

“He looked great — Victor’s great,” Roberts said. “I just love the way the ball comes out. He got ahead of Grisham and just left a slider up. But his stuff was really good.”

San Diego’s pitching problems are a borderline catastrophe, and that’s why the Dodgers overcame a sluggish night at the plate to win Game 1 of the NLDS.

Treinen struck out Fernando Tatis Jr., with a slider, got Manny Machado to ground out and struck out Eric Hosmer with a slider to end the eighth.

He got Tommy Pham to fly to right to open the ninth before giving way to Jansen, the struggling closer whose cut fastball, which averaged 89.7 mph and topped out at 91 mph, looked far better than it did in the wild-card series against Milwaukee, when Roberts said his stuff “lacked teeth.” Jansen struck out Wil Myers and got Jake Cronenworth to ground to first, ending the game.

“As I look out at this series and beyond, managing everyone’s workload and getting them in the best spots is important,” Roberts said of his relief corps. “So to take away an out for Kenley, to now need to get two outs, he’ll be more fresh for [Wednesday night].”

Clayton Kershaw solidified himself as one of the greatest high school pitchers in Texas history 14 years ago near where he will start Game 2 of the NLDS.

Buehler, however, may be a cause for concern. He said the blister on his index finger didn’t bother him, but his command deserted him. He went to a full count on nine of the 18 batters he faced. He threw 33 pitches in the second inning, 28 in the fourth, in which he gave up an RBI single to Austin Nola, and 95 in the game.

“Physically, I felt great, I think the ball was coming out of my hand well,” Buehler said. “I just missed a lot with it, but I’d rather feel really, really good and move forward positively. It is what it is. Obviously, we have a really deep and talented team and we’ll just keep rolling with that and see what happens.”


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