Turns out Walker Buehler’s blister issue is actually a blisters issue, plural, though perhaps it’s no longer a significant one. Pitching through blisters on both his right index and middle fingers in National League Championship Series Game 1 on Monday, Buehler threw 100 pitches for the first time in over a year.
An early home run to Freddie Freeman stuck Buehler with a no-decision on a night that saw the Dodgers lose to the Braves, 5-1, at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. But if the Dodgers have their way, it won’t be the last start Buehler makes this postseason. And it doesn’t appear anything on his right hand will affect that.
“It held up as good as we’ve seen it in the last month,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “That’s why he was able to really get to that 100-pitch mark, so I was really pleased with it.”
Roberts later clarified that “it,” singular, is not the correct way to characterize Buehler’s issue; instead, the right-hander has been dealing with multiple blisters for more than a month. The one on his middle finger affects him most when he attempts to put spin on his curveball. The one on his index finger interferes with his slider and cutter. So it was encouraging for the Dodgers to see Buehler throw those three pitches 47 percent of the time in Game 1, up from 26 percent in his NL Division Series outing against the Padres.
“I do feel that we came out of it really well today,” Roberts said.
It was not a curveball, a slider or a cutter that Freeman clubbed out of the park in the first inning, but a 97 mph fastball that caught enough plate for the Braves’ first baseman to reach it with his bat head. And for Buehler, that was that. He recovered to throw four more hitless innings, although a career-high five walks kept his pitch count high. When Buehler allowed consecutive hits to open the fifth, Roberts emerged from the dugout to remove him.
“I’ve got to stop walking guys, and get deeper into games,” said Buehler, who threw exactly 100 pitches. “Nice to get into the sixth. Not nice to give up two hits in the sixth. I physically feel good, and was happy to kind of get a little bit deeper into a game, finally. But I have to do more.”
Why Buehler has struggled with efficiency, he isn’t entirely sure, though he suspects some of it has to do with the nature of postseason baseball. Walks and strikeouts happen. A lot. Buehler has now made nine career postseason starts (starting as many Game 1’s as anyone in Dodgers history not named Clayton Kershaw), and has struck out at least seven batters in all of them. He fanned exactly seven on Monday, all in a 14-batter stretch from the second through the fifth.
“It just speaks to how good he is,” Roberts said. “He went five innings. He gave up one run, and still wasn’t as sharp as I know he has been and can be.”
That doesn’t mean Buehler was happy with his outing, bemoaning his walk total and cutting short a postgame press conference after a reporter asked about his tight pants. But it does mean he’s inching closer to the Buehler that dominated last October, allowing one run in 12 postseason innings. Before Monday, that was the last time he had thrown triple-digit pitches in a start.
Buehler wasn’t dealing with a blister then, but he appears to have figured out how to manage it, sometimes taping it during bullpen sessions and receiving additional treatment minutes before Monday’s game. Since the issue forced him to miss two starts in September, Buehler has leaned on former Dodgers starter Rich Hill for advice and has been following the guidance of the team’s assistant trainer and blister expert, Yosuke “Possum” Nakajima.
The Dodgers, in turn, are leaning on Buehler. Should this series reach Game 6, he will be lined up to pitch, hoping to do even more than in Game 1.
“I feel like I’ve been decently successful,” Buehler said. “But I can go deeper. I can be better. Looking at it that way is never going to change for me.”