Column: Where is Walker Buehler? Dodgers ace is still searching for old self
The Dodgers are six weeks into their season and the right-handed anchor of their rotation is still missing.
No, not that one.
The other one — their big-game pitcher, Mr. Game 163, the one with “Buetane” stitched on his glove.
Where is Walker Buehler?
Buehler wants to know too.
“This is my eighth start,” Buehler said. “I should be in game shape by now.”
The details were problematic, however.
Buehler required 91 pitches to navigate only five innings, as he was charged with two runs, six hits and two walks. The start was his sixth this year in which he pitched less than six innings. Last year, he failed to complete six innings in only four of his 33 starts.
The Dodgers’ No. 1 pitcher hasn’t performed like a No. 1 pitcher.
Justin Turner hit a three-run homer and the Dodgers defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks 5-3 to complete a four-game sweep on Wednesday at Dodger Stadium.
The two-time All-Star hasn’t looked like an All-Star.
Regardless of whether he regains his previous form, the Dodgers should cruise into the postseason, courtesy of their depth and the number of opponents who aren’t fielding competitive teams.
But once they are in October, Buehler will have to pitch like the Buehler of the past if the Dodgers are to have any chance of winning their second World Series in three years.
“We have a great team,” Buehler said. “It kind of gives you a cushion to kind of find what you need.”
Specifically, he’s searching for the fastball that made him Walker Buehler, a pitch that has diminished in speed and spin rate.
The gas leak has resulted in him striking out fewer batters, 7.5 per nine innings this year compared to 9.2 last year and 10.3 the year before that.
He struck out seven or more batters in 17 starts last year. He has done that only once this year, when he registered 10 strikeouts in a shutout of the Diamondbacks on April 25.
“I think velocity is one thing and movement’s the other,” Buehler said. “Trying to get it to move a little later, move a little more, go a little faster, is always a thing.”
The average velocity of his fastball has dropped from close to 97 mph two years ago to 95 mph and spin rate from nearly 2,500 revolutions per minute last year to under 2,300.
Which could explain why manager Dave Roberts said before the game that Buehler should rely less on his signature pitch.
“For me, it’s when he decides to pitch and not throw, I think he’s better,” Roberts said. “When you let the bravado get into play and try to bully guys with just fastballs, I think that doesn’t go as well.”
Buehler has compensated by throwing fewer fastballs and more cutters.
But on a day when his cutter wasn’t moving late and his breaking pitches weren’t sharp, the fastball was what allowed him to escape a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the fifth inning to preserve a 5-2 advantage.
Buehler struck out Jordan Luplow with a low-and-inside 95-mph fastball for the first out. He followed that by striking out Pavin Smith on another 95-mph fastball, this one upstairs.
“It was kind of first time all year that I really tried to reach back and grab something and it’s been there,” said Buehler, who extinguished the threat by forcing Christian Walker to ground into a force out.
Buehler was heartened by the sequence.
Asked if he thought he could still deliver overpowering fastballs, he replied, “I think so. I mean, I threw a couple today that I really liked. I liked the way they came out of my hand.”
Designated hitter Justin Turner was encouraged by what he saw from Buehler in the fifth inning.
The Dodgers announced Wednesday that some members of its broadcast team had tested positive for COVID-19. The Dodgers will broadcast road games remotely for now.
“That’s the Walker that’s the best,” Turner said. “When he’s pitching with his back against the wall, he has that F-you mentality.”
The confidence was also evident after the game, in how Buehler wasn’t defensive about his fastball and acknowledged his role as the staff ace required him to pitch deeper into games.
“I think that the smart players, the ones that are really self-aware,” Roberts said, “it makes them even better.”
In other words, it moves Buehler a step or two closer to rediscovering who he was or finding a new version of himself who is equally effective.
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