Walker Buehler got off to a slow start last year, but had a 162-game season to turn it around. He’s off to another slow start this year, and it’s already August.
But neither Buehler, who allowed three solo home runs and let two leads get away Monday night, nor his manager, were panicking after the Padres rallied against the bullpen for a 5-4 win over the Dodgers at Petco Park.
“To get through five innings, I think, is a small win, given how I threw the ball,” Buehler said. “But hopefully, they take the reins off me and I go and help us win some games.”
Buehler struck out three, but also walked three. Although he had a 5.22 ERA in April last year after nursing a sore arm in Spring Training, he didn’t have a three-homer or three-walk start last year until his 18th start.
He showed up at Summer Camp behind the other starters because, he said, of the uncertainty as to when the season would start. He’s still behind, not only with pitch counts (he threw 79), but command. Solo home runs to Trent Grisham, Wil Myers and Fernando Tatis Jr. came on a cutter and two curveballs, while his sinker velocity (96 mph) was down one half-tick from the average of both last year and his first start five days ago. He allowed an average of one homer every nine innings last year, but has served up four in 8 2/3 innings in his two starts this year.
All that aside, Dave Roberts had just seen back-to-back starts turned in by Clayton Kershaw and Buehler, enough to ease any manager’s mind after neither was ready to start on Opening Day.
“When you get Clayton back and you can extend him his next turn, and you get Walker and extend him his next turn, oh man, I couldn’t be more comfortable and more confident with our starters,” said Roberts. “Going forward, we’re in a really good place.”
The Dodgers felt some of Buehler’s walks might have been determined by the strike zone of plate umpire Tom Woodring. Roberts seemed to think Buehler pitched better than the line indicated.
“Overall, very positive,” said Roberts. “We got the pitch count up, got him through five. The last inning he started spinning the breaking ball better, albeit to Tatis, he hit a first-pitch breaking ball the other way. Doesn’t happen too often. Earlier, he left the cutter to Grisham that didn’t get there and the breaking ball he left up to Myers. Given that he didn’t have his best command tonight, to give us five and keep us in the ball game, I thought, was pretty good.
“I just don’t think he had the command that he will have. It’s his second start. He’s going to be fine. Now we can loosen the reins more his next turn and let him win a baseball game.”
The Padres are out to prove they are legitimate contenders this year, and this series is the early acid test. As an indicator of their improvement, Buehler had completely dominated the Padres over the past two years, going 4-0 with a 0.64 ERA in four starts, striking out 42 in only 28 innings.
“Not enough strikes, not enough good counts for me,” said Buehler. “I made mistakes and they hit them out of the ballpark. I was good with our plan and the pitches called, just didn’t execute the way we would want to. Got to get in the zone more and getting in better counts. I expect a lot of myself. I think me being good is important. I just want to be better.”
Cody Bellinger, who slugged his first home run on Sunday, hit his second leading off the ninth inning against Kirby Yates, who responded by striking out AJ Pollock, Corey Seager and Chris Taylor for the save.
Will Smith doubled home the other two runs, but he also was picked off third base by catcher Austin Hedges, with former Dodger Manny Machado sneaking back to third for the catch and the tag.
“I just ventured off, Manny scooted over,” said Smith. “That can’t happen.”