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Column: Walker Buehler remains modest as he continues his quest for greatness

Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler throws a pitch during Sunday's win over the San Francisco Giants.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

A year after Walker Buehler firmly established himself as the heir apparent to longtime ace Clayton Kershaw, the 26-year-old right-hander with the blazing velocity and remarkable variety of nasty pitches remains modest about his place on the Dodgers’ pitching staff.

Buehler’s start against the San Francisco Giants on Sunday was his third start this season and the longest, at 5-2/3 innings. He gave up two runs on only one hit — a two-out single by Mike Yastrzemski —but he issued four leadoff walks. One of them was in the fifth inning, when he also unleashed a wild pitch and hit a batter as the Giants scored both of their runs. He was gone before bursts of power by AJ Pollock and Mookie Betts shredded the Giants’ bullpen and ignited the Dodgers to a 6-2 comeback victory on a summer afternoon whose beauty went unappreciated by the cardboard cutouts scattered throughout the seats at Dodger Stadium.

Pollock, Betts and an impressive collective effort from the Dodgers’ bullpen got Buehler off the hook for the loss but Buehler wouldn’t let himself off the hook for a performance that had too many rough edges for his liking. He threw 87 pitches, 49 for strikes, and had six strikeouts, matching his total over his first two starts.

“I think today wasn’t my best outing by any means but I feel encouraged and it’s hard on a team that’s this good. You just kind of don’t want to mess it up,” he said during a postgame Zoom interview. “So, I didn’t mess it up too bad today and I’ll keep trying to get to where I want to be.”

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Sparked by AJ Pollock’s three-run home run in the seventh and Mookie Betts’ three-run blast in the eighth, the Dodgers rallied to beat the San Francisco Giants.

He offered glimpses of dominance and glimpses of a pitcher who considers himself very much a work in progress as he seeks consistently sharper location of the marvelous array of pitches he has developed. He eased his way past leadoff walks in the first and third innings but couldn’t get out of trouble in the fifth, walking leadoff batter Pablo Sandoval and hitting Austin Slater on an 0-and-1 count with one out. After a wild pitch — a curveball in the dirt that allowed Slater to advance to second — he struck out Tyler Heineman with a 96-mph, four-seam fastball for the second out.

Buehler got a 2-and-2 count on Yastrzemski and had a chance to escape without damage but the Giants center fielder lined a knuckle curve — a pitch that had fooled him earlier in that at-bat — into center to score Sandoval and Slater. Buehler struck out Alex Dickerson looking to end the inning and got two quick outs after he had walked Donovan Solano to start the sixth, but manager Dave Roberts had seen enough and went to the bullpen.

“Just a little bit erratic,” Buehler said of his performance in his first home start this season. “I think at times you can get a little bit of that, you know, effectively wild kind of thing that happens in this game. I would have liked to have been a little crisper, especially to lead off innings, but in all I feel pretty good about it.”

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Los Angeles Dodgers vs. San Francisco Giants highlights.

For every positive aspect of his performance Sunday he found something that needed improvement, an indication of his drive and motivation. He didn’t give up any home runs, a distinct improvement after giving up one home run in his first start, at Houston, and three to the Padres last Monday at San Diego. He wryly noted that as progress. “I think I just made some better pitches and luckily kept it in here,” he said.

He also got into the sixth inning for the first time; he lasted only 3-2/3 innings in his first start and five in his second start. “It’s another step forward,” he said, “and hopefully we’ll do better next time.”

Buehler isn’t yet at the level he showed last year, not consistently the dominating pitcher who was 14-4 in 30 starts with an eye-opening 215 strikeouts in 182-1/3 innings. Roberts said during an in-game TV interview on Sunday he hoped Buehler could go six innings and 90 pitches and, if Buehler avoided stressful situations, maybe pitch into the seventh inning. That didn’t happen.

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Roberts agreed with Buehler’s description of his performance as erratic. “But I will say this: We couldn’t get the leadoff guy out,” Roberts said. “If you look at his 90 throws, 30 of those throws were great and executed really well, considerably better than he did his first two outings. Then there were some other ones that probably weren’t so good. But ... he still gave us a chance to win a game, and that’s part of his value.”

Reflecting on the 100th anniversary of immensely popular Negro League baseball is particularly instructive during this time of racial reckoning.

His teammates recognize Buehler’s significance to their drive for success this season. “We’re going to need him. We all know he’s one of the guys we’re going to be counting on,” Pollock said. “It’s good he’s a tough critic. He threw the ball well today. I know he’s going to be harsh on himself — he had a couple walks — but his stuff is great.

“You still love it when you’re playing behind him and he’s out on the mound. You feel really good about your chances of winning.”

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The wins will come for Buehler. He will find his way. “I think the first couple games it’s more about how you’re moving and things like that and those lead to some misfires,” he said. “I think today, more so than the first two games, I kind of felt like I knew what I was doing. Just keep working that way. I just feel a little bit more comfortable, I think.”


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