LOS ANGELES -- Here’s what Clayton Kershaw said this Spring Training about his heir apparent as Dodgers ace, Walker Buehler:
“The talent, you can’t teach that. It’s there and we know that. The ability to spin a breaking ball, the life the fastball has. It’s one thing to throw 97, 98 [mph], but the life, the movement, he checks those boxes. Now it’s just a matter of compete and consistency. We’ve seen the compete, the mentality is there, not anything I’d change as far as that goes.
“Now it’s just, how do we box that up and do it every fifth day for a full season, for five and 10 seasons? That’s what it’s going to take. For me, that’s the only question mark left. Can you do it for eight months straight, make 32 starts, 38 with the playoffs, and be dominant. I was different, in that I needed to work on pitching. I needed to throw more strikes, to find a third pitch. I needed more refinement to get to that next level.
“He doesn’t need that. Every box is checked. Now the only thing is going out every fifth day knowing you’ll get a very good start every time out. He pretty much checked it in the second half last year, but do it for a full season and there’s no more questions.”
And what does Kershaw now think, after Buehler made 30 starts before the playoffs, threw 182 1/3 innings, struck out 215 with a 1.042 WHIP?
“He did it.”
On Wednesday at Dodger Stadium, Buehler and Kershaw can team up to beat the Nationals in an elimination Game 5 of the National League Division Series in an epic matchup against Stephen Strasburg, who confounded the Dodgers in Game 2.
Buehler will start, Kershaw piggybacking “at some point,” manager Dave Roberts said after Monday night’s 6-1 loss to Max Scherzer presented the Dodgers with something they haven’t faced throughout this record-breaking season:
It’s been a relative breeze for the Dodgers, coasting through the friendly NL West for a seventh consecutive title, while the battle-tested Nats finished second to the Braves in the East and had to pull out a miraculous comeback win just to get to October as the Wild Card. The Dodgers peaked in mid-August, coasted for a month and finished strong with a seven-game win streak, division winners by 21 games. The Dodgers view the NLDS as a necessary step on the path to the World Series. The Nats are acting like this IS their World Series.
Although this is only Buehler’s second season, he earned clutch cred last year when it comes to urgency. He clinched the division in Game 163 over the Rockies and pitched the Dodgers into position to win the pennant in Game 7 against the Brewers.
“Well, I guess this will be kind of my third of those scenarios, so something I’m familiar with,” Buehler said on Monday night. “And getting to do it at home certainly helps and there’s not a lot to it. We’ve got to win a game and if we don’t, we go home.”
By beating the Brewers dramatically in that Wild Card, by beating the Dodgers in Game 4 to force a Game 5 showdown with a marquee matchup of starters, the Nationals reinforced their overachieving, underdog reputation, while the top-seeded Dodgers have a great, big target on their backs as the favored behemoth with billionaire resources that can overwhelm opponents and overcome flaws.
It’s a rematch of the 2016 NLDS Game 5, that one at Nationals Park, when Kershaw came out of the bullpen to close out a classic elimination battle that seemed to take the starch out of a club, which went on to lose to the eventual champion Cubs in six games.
Watching Kershaw pace and stretch and fire balls at the wall as he anxiously awaited a bullpen call that never came Monday night, no doubt he wants to do it again.
Since that 2016 postseason, the Dodgers have been the two-time reigning pennant winners unable to take that last step. As expected because of Washington’s starting rotation, this NLDS has already been the most challenging of the three for the Dodgers, who advanced in four games against Arizona in 2017 and Atlanta last year.
The Nationals rely on Strasburg and Scherzer, with an offense built around Anthony Rendon, who drove in three runs in Game 4. Buehler said he’s not concerned that Nationals hitters will be better prepared having just seen him in Game 1.
Although his fastball can touch 100 mph, the 25-year-old Buehler’s pitch repertoire is no more impressive than his confidence.
“I think the thing that’s kind of lost in playoff baseball is that it’s really fun,” he said. “I think the pressure and things like that, if you spin it in your head the right way it can make it more fun. So, that’s our plan.”