When the Dodgers cruised their way to a franchise record 106 wins in the regular season, there was optimism that it would translate into a similarly smooth October. The 2017 team, despite losing their historic dominance during the 1-16 nosedive, managed to snap back into form to almost go undefeated for the entire NL playoffs.
Unfortunately, it won’t come as easy for the 2019 team. After losing game 4 in our nation’s capital soundly, the NLDS culminates with game 5 in Elysian Park. The young firebrand aces Walker Buehler and Stephen Strasburg will face off, ensuring runs will be at a premium.
It’s hard not to be at least a little bit nervous. Strasburg absolutely incinerated Dodger bats in game 2, and the possibility of a first-round exit in a concretely championship-or-bust season is unfathomable.
Thus, it’s time to say it: Don’t panic. Game 5 is in the surest hands it can be.
It’s time, if you didn’t already, to believe in Walker Buehler.
Some of you are forgetting how clutch Buehler was in elimination/must-win games last postseason and it shows.
— Marshall Garvey (@MarshallGarvey) October 8, 2019
It may seem absurd to insist on having faith in an All-Star pitcher who managed two historic complete games this season. Yet I’ve long had this feeling that some fans may not realize just how clutch Walker Buehler has proven himself to be in his young career.
As proof positive he’s got this in 2019, let’s look at the three times he saved the Dodgers in his rookie season of 2018.
Game 163 in 2018
To this day, there’s a tiny part of my brain that just can’t comprehend how ugly the 2018 season was. It certainly felt shocking to me, for in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 World Series, my pain was actually somewhat stymied by my belief that they’d barrel their way to redemption the very next year, 2015 Royals style.
It didn’t turn out that way, especially with “rock bottom” in May. But through all of the underperforming, losses to garbage teams, mounting injuries, and fear over Kenley Jansen’s very life, one thing was consistent: Walker F’n Buehler. From his first MLB start on April 23 against Miami onwards, he was unwavering in showcasing his electric pitching talent.
Of course, being the season that it was, the Dodgers would have to scrape at the tail end just to have a game 163 against Colorado. Buehler was fittingly handed the ball, and proceeded to spin a gem that almost felt like a season of stress and grinding never happened.
In 6.2 innings, he surrendered just one hit, three walks, and no runs. The Dodger offense erupted for five runs in the middle innings, and ended up with an easy 5-2 victory to seal the sixth straight NL West title.
Game 7 of the 2018 NLCS
As Dodger Twitter has devolved into a freakout about game 5, I can’t help but remember we were in the exact same state of mind before this contest almost a whole year ago. The anxiety leading up to the 7th game in Milwaukee, especially after losing the 2017 World Series in the same game, was unbearable.
All the more haunting was that it came on the 30th anniversary of the 1988 World Series finale, in which Orel Hershiser’s complete game secured the last title we can savor as of this moment.
As if he were possessed by the spirit of the Bulldog himself, Buehler gave a comparably gutsy effort in Milwaukee. Things got off to a rough start when he gave up a solo shot to Christian Yelich in the first, but things settled down quickly, especially after Cody Bellinger’s go-ahead two-run blast in the second.
Over 4.2 spirited innings, Buehler struck out seven, and didn’t allow another run. Chris Taylor’s catch and Yasiel Puig’s insurance blast sealed the second consecutive pennant for Los Angeles. Strangely, Buehler wouldn’t be the pitcher of record, which went to Ryan Madson.
Yet that technicality doesn’t change the fact that he did all you could expect of a rookie in such a high-pressure game. Just like in game 163, he made all the stress and back-and-forth worth it in the end.
Game 3 of the 2018 World Series
Nothing should give you more faith in Buehler than this masterpiece. This is the game that proved his mettle when the stakes are the absolute highest.
It may be a stretch to call this bigger than a game 7, as it wasn’t an elimination game. But there are games that are “virtual” elimination contests, and this was one. The Dodgers had been soundly whipped by the Boston Red Sox in the first two games, their offense frozen and overmatched. They couldn’t afford to go down 3-0 in the series.
And for good reason: the Red Sox were the undisputed best team in baseball. They had the MLB RBI leader in J.D. Martinez, and eventual AL MVP Mookie Betts. They made mincemeat out of the superteam Yankees and Astros en route to the World Series. They were likely the best team so far this millennium, period.
On this night at Dodger Stadium, however, none of that mattered to the rookie ace. In seven innings, he only allowed two hits, both of them in the third. He struck out seven, with Betts and Martinez rung up twice each.
It wasn’t just dominant; it was historic. Buehler became just the third pitcher after Don Larsen in 1956 and Roger Clemens in 2000 to throw seven or more scoreless innings while allowing two hits or fewer and no walks in a World Series games.
It was a performance so magisterial that the Dodger King of October, Sandy Koufax, stood up for a rousing ovation.
The only shame (and perhaps the reason some may not draw this performance so quickly in their minds right now) is that he wasn’t the pitcher of record. After Jackie Bradley Jr. continued his two-out clutch hitting in the eighth against Kenley Jansen, the game went on for a record 18 innings.
By the time Max Muncy cranked that walk-off shot against Nathan Eovaldi, Buehler’s dominance felt like it had happened two whole series ago. But it shouldn’t be overshadowed. Especially as the culmination of a postseason that started rough for the Vanderbilt alumnus, it was all the more impressive.
Most of all, it showed what I believe is the key to a pitcher having a successful postseason: the ability to get better as the stakes keep growing. Earlier this year, I said the same in a piece about Buehler providing friendly competition for Clayton Kershaw. It’s something even veteran aces are hard-pressed to accomplish. Buehler did it in his rookie season.
Already, he’s off to a better start this postseason than last year’s with a game 1 gem. Now it’s time for him to continue his nascent, albeit substantial, track record in clutch scenarios. I firmly believe he will, and so should you.