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Column: Tuesday can’t be Walker Buehler’s day off. Dodgers must use their best weapon

Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler about to throw ball
Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler pitches in the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds on Sept. 17.
(Dylan Buell / Getty Images)

They are a loss from elimination. Their rotation depth has vanished. They don’t have a choice.

The Dodgers must start Walker Buehler on Tuesday.

Starting Buehler in Game 4 of their National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants would require him to pitch on three days’ rest, something he’s never done in his career.

Similar assignments were responsible for some of Clayton Kershaw’s worst postseason moments.

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No question, there would be a degree of risk.

The Dodgers would be taking even more of a gamble by not starting Buehler, however. They can’t possibly count on Tony Gonsolin to extend their season, not against these relentless Giants, not in a series as emotionally charged as this one.

The Dodgers are staring at the cold reality of being one loss away from playoff elimination after another frustrating loss to the San Francisco Giants.

In the aftermath of a 1-0 loss in Game 3, manager Dave Roberts said he wasn’t ready to name his starting pitcher for Game 4.

“I think we got to circle up as a group,” Roberts said. “What I will say is that everything’s on the table.”

That includes starting Buehler?

“Everything’s on the table,” Roberts said.

Dodgers' Gavin Lux with helmet in hand
The Dodgers’ Gavin Lux reacts after a pop fly during the ninth inning of Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants on Monday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The guess here is that Roberts’ answer was gamesmanship rather than a reflection of the organization’s indecision.

That theory was supported by something the next speaker at the postgame news conference said.

“I know he’s coming on a short rest, but he’s going to be pretty excited,” first baseman Albert Pujols said of Buehler.

Maybe Pujols knew something. Maybe he assumed. Or maybe he misheard the question.

Albert Pujols, who’s been a positive addition, got two hits in the Dodgers’ 1-0 loss in Game 3 of the NLDS. Could it be his last hurrah in the playoffs?

Whatever. This shouldn’t be a hard decision. The Dodgers’ brain trust is sometimes guilty of overthinking, but there’s nothing to overthink here.

What makes the decision a no-brainer is the day off between Games 4 and 5. Julio Urias, who won Game 2 on Saturday, would be in line to start the final game of the best-of-five series on regular rest.

Just get through Game 4 and the Dodgers will have the luxury of sending to the mound a 20-game winner who has experience closing out a World Series.

Who has a better chance of getting them there? Gonsolin, who posted an 8.68 earned-run average in four postseason appearances last year and missed half of this season with two shoulder injuries? Or Buehler, who in recent years has established himself as one of the organization’s best big-game performers since Orel Hershiser?

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VIDEO | 01:45
Max Scherzer, Albert Pujols and Dave Roberts on the Dodgers’ NLDS Game 3 loss

Dodgers players Max Scherzer and Albert Pujols, along with manager Dave Roberts, talk about the Dodgers’ 1-0 loss in NLDS Game 3 against the San Francisco Giants.

The Dodgers have refrained from starting Kershaw, or anyone else, on short rest in recent years. The reason: They didn’t have to. Kershaw last started on three days’ rest in 2016, the year before the Dodgers started their four-year stretch during which they won three pennants and a World Series.

They don’t have the same depth now, with Kershaw sidelined with a season-ending arm injury and free-agent catastrophe Trevor Bauer accused of sexual assault and placed on administrative leave.

While the mention of Kershaw’s history of pitching on short rest might evoke unpleasant memories in these parts, the left-hander’s record wasn’t entirely bad.

In four consecutive years from 2013 to 2016, Kershaw pitched Games 1 and 4 of the NLDS on three days’ rest. The Dodgers won three of those four. That included the first time Kershaw ever started on abbreviated rest, when he limited the Atlanta Braves to two unearned runs in six innings of a close-out game. Kershaw’s best start on short rest was in the 2015 NLDS, when he allowed one run in seven innings against the New York Mets.

The San Francisco Giants’ meteoric rise over the last year breeds hope that the Dodgers-Giants playoff matchups could become a regular occurrence.

The only time the Dodgers lost when he started on three days’ rest was in 2014 against the St. Louis Cardinals. In retrospect, what was described at the time as a seventh-inning meltdown by Kershaw could be characterized instead as a failure by the Dodgers to construct a competent bullpen. Kershaw shut out the Cardinals over the first six innings, only to give up two singles and a home run in the seventh. The Dodgers lost 3-2 and were eliminated.

So, this can be done.

An argument could be made that Kershaw paid the price for those short starts later in the two instances the Dodgers advanced. Fair enough. His 2013 and 2016 seasons ended with ugly performances in the NLCS. But there’s no point in the Dodgers worrying about the NLCS or World Series now. They have to get there first.

What’s of virtually unanimous opinion is that Buehler has the ability and temperament to shoulder such a responsibility.

He beat the Colorado Rockies in Game 163 of the 2018 regular season to secure a division championship. He has a career postseason ERA of 2.53. In the two World Series games he’s pitched, one in 2018 and one last year, he’s given up one run in a combined 13 innings. The Dodgers won both games.

“He’s got a very diverse mix of pitches, and that makes him very successful,” right-hander Max Scherzer said. “He’s fearless out there. He got out there and attacks the zone. So when he gets synced and he executes his pitches, he’s nails.”

And if the Dodgers lose? They can take comfort in knowing they went down with one of their aces on the mound. They won’t have to spend their winter wondering what Buehler’s limits are or how the postseason might have played out differently had they not placed their season in Tony Gonsolin’s hands.


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