LOS ANGELES -- Walker Buehler is the next Dodgers starting pitcher tasked with keeping the club close enough early to unleash its late-inning offensive weaponry on a taxed Milwaukee bullpen. He fell a bit short in his last outing, but he fully expects to right the ship tonight.
If Game 3 of the National League Championship Series follows the script of Games 1 and 2, the Dodgers will look to their rookie right-hander to prove that starting pitching still matters despite the "bullpenning" trend embraced by the Brewers. The best-of-seven series resumes tonight at Dodger Stadium after the clubs split a pair at Miller Park.
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The Dodgers came into the series believing their superior starting pitching would position a grinding offense to chew up and spit out the parade of relievers the Brewers deploy. To succeed, however, the starting pitcher can't spot the opponent a 5-1 lead, as Clayton Kershaw did in Game 1 against the Brewers, or a 5-0 lead, as Buehler did in his postseason debut when Game 3 of the NL Division Series sped up on him in Atlanta. Those are the Dodgers' two losses this postseason.
Management took a hostile crowd out of the Buehler equation this time by starting him in the comforts of home, but on a conference call on Sunday, Buehler was both accountable for what he did wrong in Atlanta and confident it won't be repeated tonight.
"You could say there was a little bit of nerves and anxiety, but that happens, being my first time there," said the 24-year-old Buehler. "I think I handled it fine. My heartbeat, I felt good with. I was more upset with the decision to throw certain pitches."
Buehler said watching two left-handers (Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu) pitch against the Brewers has limited value as far as schooling a hard-throwing righty how to attack Milwaukee's lineup.
"Obviously they have one of the better players in the world right now in Christian Yelich, and Lorenzo Cain has been here and won that before. Mike Moustakas, too, and the two big righties (Jesus Aguilar and Ryan Braun) -- a pretty strong lineup and we've seen what they can do," said Buehler.
Will Buehler rebound from that five-run second inning? He already has, shutting down the Braves for three scoreless innings before being lifted and not dwelling on it since.
"I know what happened. I was there," he said. "Some guys are big into that, I'm more of a positive feedback guy. The only games I really watch are the good ones, and I move forward and stay confident with what I have and keep going."
In that 35-pitch second inning, Buehler threw only two sliders, the pitch his coach Rick Honeycutt believes has taken the right-hander to another level, as it did another young hard thrower nearly a decade ago.
Buehler faced eight batters that inning and didn't throw a slider after the third hitter. Ronald Acuna Jr. hit a grand slam on a 98.1-mph fastball.
"Kersh was that way early," Honeycutt said, comparing the ace-in-training to Kershaw, the ace of the last decade.
Honeycutt said Buehler took his game to another level when he was able to take 5 mph off the slider. According to Statcast™, since changing his grip after an Aug. 11 start in Colorado, Buehler's slider velocity dropped 2.4 mph and has dropped another 1.3 mph since, while opposing hitters are just 2-for-37 off it since then. Also, his slider whiff rate -- the ratio of swinging strikes relative to all swings -- climbed from 26.3 percent before Aug. 11 to 42.1 percent in September.
"To me, the last few outings he's found a grip with the slider, seeing it at 82 to 84, that's devastating," said Honeycutt. "We were always looking for a pitch he can rely on that has separation of speed. Everything early, it was cutter 94, 95; fastball 97, 98; he couldn't rely on the curveball, and even the change is 90, 92 at times.
"Everything was in that hard phase. Now, he has the ability to get something he can actually command off-speed, it reminds me of Kersh when he started to get the slider [in 2009], something in the mix that they couldn't just sit fastball. He's started to pitch, not just throw. He can still rush it up there when he wants to, but he's not relying on just the fastball, even though it's great. He knows he's got different weapons, and he feels good with all of them."