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Buehler set to make first big league start

Dodgers' No. 1 prospect to face Marlins in series opener
MLB.com @kengurnick

LOS ANGELES -- Twenty games into the 2017 season, the Dodgers called up Cody Bellinger as a temporary injury replacement, and the rest is history.

On Monday, 20 games into the 2018 season, they will call up Walker Buehler to make his first Major League start, replacing the injured Rich Hill. Buehler, the Dodgers' top prospect, will probably also start in Saturday's doubleheader against the Giants before being returned to Triple-A Oklahoma City. At least that's manager Dave Roberts' story and he was sticking to it on Sunday.

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LOS ANGELES -- Twenty games into the 2017 season, the Dodgers called up Cody Bellinger as a temporary injury replacement, and the rest is history.

On Monday, 20 games into the 2018 season, they will call up Walker Buehler to make his first Major League start, replacing the injured Rich Hill. Buehler, the Dodgers' top prospect, will probably also start in Saturday's doubleheader against the Giants before being returned to Triple-A Oklahoma City. At least that's manager Dave Roberts' story and he was sticking to it on Sunday.

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"Correct," Roberts said when asked whether that was the plan.

The 23-year-old Buehler is baseball's No. 12 prospect and the No. 4 right-handed prospect, per MLB Pipeline. He pitched briefly for the Dodgers out of the bullpen in a September callup last year.

"We had a couple of in-house options, but to get him a start, he's pitching well, we just felt it was a good decision," said Roberts. "I would say he's six [innings] and 90 [pitches], that would totally be fair."

Buehler struggled in his September debut with the Dodgers, recording a 7.71 ERA over eight appearances. Buehler reported to Spring Training in February with back soreness that limited his Cactus League action to two games, but he struck out seven with one walk one over four scoreless innings once he was healthy.

In three starts this year for OKC, Buehler is 1-0 with a 2.10 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 16 strikeouts and four walks in 13 innings. He needed 80 pitches to get through four innings on Monday in his most recent start.

"It's exciting. It's the big leagues and it's time to go now," said Buehler, who arrived in time to play catch before Sunday's game.

Buehler said the timing of this callup was more surprising than last September's, but the fact that he's back as a starter makes this one "a little more settling," because "I'm doing what I've been doing my whole career."

"The hitters are good, you know that," he said. "You don't realize how good they are until you see them in person. But, most of us here are pretty good too and you try to remember that."

Management has been determined to thread the needle between stretching out his innings (he threw only 98 innings last year) and keeping him fresh enough to be a rotation factor down the stretch in 2018. The Dodgers haven't confirmed a speculated target of between 135 to 150 innings this year.

Roberts said the overall success of the current starting rotation allows management to continue deferring Buehler's permanent recall until later in the season.

"When he's in the Minors, you can manage his innings and usage a lot better than here," Roberts said. "He can go four or five innings there, and that's not the goal here. Each potential start he would make here chips away at the overall usage we want him to throw in a season. It's best to save him for when he does get here and stays."

The last-place Marlins would appear to be a soft spot for Buehler's return to the Major Leagues.

While in the Dodgers' bullpen last September, Buehler showed glimpses of future greatness with his electric arm, but also the wildness that often plagues young, hard throwers (eight walks in 9 1/3 innings). Still, he struck out 12, finishing the season with 137 strikeouts in 98 innings.

Roberts said he has "high hopes, high hopes" for Buehler's unveiling.

"September, obviously it was moving pretty quick for him," Roberts said. "It was a learning process. But I think Spring Training he showed really well. I love his four-pitch mix and I think he's going to come here and pitch well."

Buehler was credited with his first Major League victory on Sept. 21 at Philadelphia with a scoreless inning of relief and two strikeouts. He was selected as the Dodgers Branch Rickey Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2017.

Despite requiring Tommy John surgery after his selection in the first round of the 2015 Draft, the slender Buehler has regained his triple-digit velocity with a high-spin rate. He also has a sharp curveball and slider.

Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers since 1989, and for MLB.com since 2001.

Los Angeles Dodgers, Walker Buehler