Buehler empties tank, gets Dodgers to G7

October 18th, 2020

Being backed against the wall doesn’t faze the Dodgers, especially the fearless , who added to his big-game resume on Saturday, when the Dodgers beat the Braves, 3-1, surviving a second consecutive elimination game to set up Sunday’s Game 7 for the National League championship.

Once trailing in the series, 3-1, the Dodgers are trying to duplicate their comeback against the Astros in the 1981 NL Division Series, when they lost the first two and won the next three elimination games in a best-of-five. Entering 2020, 87 teams had fallen behind 3-1 in any best-of-seven postseason series. Only 17 of those (20 percent) won the next two to force a Game 7.

But that's where the tide has historically turned.

Of those 17 teams, 13 went on to win Game 7, most recently the 2016 Cubs in the World Series against the Indians. The Dodgers will be playing a winner-take-all postseason game for a sixth straight season, having gone 2-3 in the previous five.

Starting for the third consecutive year in an October game with high drama, Buehler pitched six scoreless innings, none more pivotal than the second. Having just enjoyed watching and slug back-to-back homers in a three-run first inning, Buehler opened the top of the second by allowing three consecutive singles to load the bases with no outs.

Somehow, the Braves didn’t score.

“He doesn’t panic and loves the great moments,” said manager Dave Roberts. “The great ones make great pitches and big pitches in big spots. And he’s done that time and time again.”

Buehler is often reminded -- as if he’s forgotten -- of his first career postseason start as a rookie in the 2018 NLDS, when a similar bases-loaded jam (also against the Braves) led to a Ronald Acuña Jr. grand slam. But that was then.

This time, Buehler fired three 98 mph fastballs past Austin Riley, caught Nick Markakis looking at a 99.7 mph fastball (the second-fastest strikeout pitch of Buehler’s career) and got rookie Cristian Pache on a groundout in an escape for the ages.

“It’s like he loaded the bases, and then he kind of elevated his game there,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker.

How is that possible? By learning from your mistakes.

“Those failures teach you things,” Buehler said when asked about 2018. “At the end of the day, it’s all about your heartbeat. You go through things like that, your heartbeat kind of changes and slows down. I feel like my breathing was good. I know it sounds weird, and I felt calm.

“I’ve failed in those moments. I can handle those failures, I’ve been good after it, and that failure really doesn’t scare me anymore. Obviously, you don’t want to fail. There’s a different feeling when you’re not scared of that failure.”

Buehler’s start marked the seventh time a Dodgers pitcher has thrown six-plus innings in a postseason elimination game. It had last happened in Game 3 of the 2004 NLDS, with Jose Lima’s shutout of the Cardinals. At age 26, Buehler also matched teammate Clayton Kershaw with his third career postseason start of at least six scoreless innings. That’s a franchise record.

“You just watch [Buehler's] demeanor there, calm and collected, and [he] ends up getting out of it, and then you see the emotion after the fact, where I think a lot of guys probably get emotional and ride that roller coaster after the first strikeout and maybe lose focus on the next hitter,” said Turner. “His mound presence is just unbelievable, and [he] pitches big game after big game for us.”

Take your pick as to which inning turned this game around, the bottom of the first or the top of the second. The Dodgers wouldn’t score again, as Braves starter Max Fried regrouped and pitched into the seventh inning.

Buehler went six innings, having “emptied the tank,” said Roberts, who watched allow a run in the seventh, go 1-2-3 in the eighth and, yes, close it out with an uneventful ninth for the save. After walking five Braves in a Game 1 no-decision, Buehler struck out six without a walk in Game 6.

While his teammates were still fired up from their comeback win in Game 5, Buehler remained calm, refusing to panic just because his breaking pitches weren’t sharp. He credited the calm to catcher , who wasn’t supposed to start. But when turned his ankle on Friday night, the domino effect slid first-string catcher to designated hitter and put Barnes behind the plate.

And even though the Braves are statistically one of the best fastball-hitting teams in the game, Buehler’s 99 mph heater was beating them. That’s what he kept throwing, because that’s what Barnes kept calling.

“You want to use the adrenaline in big games like this, but sometimes that can spin you out a little bit, even when you feel like you’re embracing it,” Buehler said. “So, to be honest with you, I’ve never felt that calm in a baseball game, maybe in my career, especially in a spot like that. Barnes steered me through it, that’s really all there is to it. We made the pitches we needed to to get out of it, but the way he guided me through it was about as good as I’ve ever seen.

“You have these game plans and things you want to try to do, and at the end of the day, Barnes has the best view of the baseball coming out of my hand of anyone on the field. Him and Will, I’m going to trust what they see and what they want to do more than my guess. I liked where we were at.”

And when a catcher calls for a fastball, Buehler rarely argues.

“It’s my best pitch, I don’t know what else to say,” he said. “Teams do what they do, I do what I do. At the end of the day, that’s my best pitch, and in a spot like that, I was lucky to put them in the right spot.”

Buehler delivered this season-saving performance while managing finger blisters that have plagued him for six weeks. Former teammate Rich Hill advised him to undergo laser therapy, throw daily with the blisters covered and use Stan’s Rodeo Rub, a concoction developed by Stan Johnston, a former Dodgers trainer who before that was a rodeo bull rider. Johnston invented the rub to help heal blisters he developed from the rope used to tie him to bucking bulls.

It helped, too, that Atlanta’s three hardest-hit balls off Buehler turned into outs, including Marcell Ozuna’s long fly that ended the fifth inning when four-time Gold Glove Award winner flagged it at the top of the wall with a typically spectacular leaping catch. Betts was so impressed, he broke into a happy dance leaving the field.

“An unbelievable play by an unbelievable player,” said Seager.