LOS ANGELES -- Walker Buehler wanted Game 4 of the National League Division Series. He made that clear as early as Game 2, when the right-hander approached manager Dave Roberts and the club’s coaching staff with the idea.
When the Dodgers dropped Game 3 to fall behind, 2 games to 1, in the best-of-five series against the Giants, the decision to have Buehler start Game 4 was a “no-brainer,” as Roberts put it -- so long as the ace felt good physically Tuesday morning. He did, and he proved to be well up to the task.
Buehler delivered 4 1/3 innings of one-run ball with four strikeouts in the Dodgers’ 7-2 win at Dodger Stadium. The victory forced a decisive Game 5, which will be played on Thursday at Oracle Park.
“To be completely honest, there probably wasn't anything that could have been going on that I would have told [Roberts] that I didn't want the ball,” said Buehler. “So as long as I could walk into the clubhouse, I think I was going to pitch.”
Buehler, who started on three days’ rest for the first time in his career following his Game 1 assignment on Friday, set the tone early with a perfect top of the first inning, in which his fastball velocity reached as high as 97.5 mph. Buehler worked around traffic in the second and fourth innings, but he kept the Giants off-balance and off the board. Out of his 71 pitches, Buehler got seven whiffs, including two on his changeup, which he relied upon a bit more than usual.
“Over the whole course of the year, [the changeup has] just developed and gotten better and better,” said catcher Will Smith. “He can throw it for a strike when he needs to. He can keep it below, get some chase on it. And, yeah, he had a good feel for it tonight, so we leaned on it a little more and he was executing with it.”
After allowing a single and issuing a one-out walk in the top of the fifth inning, Buehler, on a shorter leash than normal, gave way to right-hander Joe Kelly, leaving the Dodgers in a good position with a 4-0 lead at the time. Kelly allowed a single to load the bases. A run, charged to Buehler, came in on Darin Ruf’s groundout to second, but Kelly got Brandon Crawford to ground out, ending the Giants’ threat and closing the book on Buehler’s line.
“Honestly, I want to say [Buehler] had better stuff than he did the other night [in Game 1],” said Roberts, who then joked, “I think the solution is to have him go on short [rest] more often.”
Now in his fourth full Major League season, Buehler has developed a reputation for being a big-game pitcher, which the numbers bear out. In four potential elimination starts, Buehler has allowed three earned runs in 21 2/3 innings (1.25 ERA), with 24 strikeouts and five walks. His 2.50 ERA in 13 postseason starts ranks third among pitchers with at least 10 starts since the Wild Card Era began in 1995, behind Madison Bumgarner (2.11) and Curt Schilling (2.12).
“Walker's one of the best playoff pitchers I've ever seen, and he loves big games,” said reliever Blake Treinen. “He loves the moment. … This is his moment to shine. He did it last year for us. With the back against the wall, he was our stopper. And we have so many capable arms, but it says a lot about him being able to take the ball in a situation like this.”
Armed with a well-rested bullpen, Roberts had more than enough to work with after Buehler’s 4 1/3 innings. After Kelly wrapped the fifth inning, Brusdar Graterol, Alex Vesia, Treinen and Phil Bickford combined to close out the final four frames. With an off-day Wednesday ahead of Game 5, it should again be all hands on deck behind starter Julio Urías, who will be pitching on normal rest.
A primary reason why that Game 5 is happening is Buehler stepping up in a big spot yet again.
“I just know when our backs are against the wall, we got a guy named Walker Buehler that ends up getting us out of it,” said right fielder Mookie Betts. “He did it again today.”