Walker Buehler watched the first two games of the 2017 World Series from the stands at Dodger Stadium. After debuting with the Dodgers a month earlier, he could not earn a place on the playoff roster, so he served as a spectator for the opening salvos in the seven-game classic with Houston. If the fates align and these team meet again this fall, Buehler figures to play a far more prominent role.
In avoiding a sweep and salvaging an otherwise wretched weekend, Buehler collected eight strikeouts and credit for the win in a 3-2 victory over the Astros on Sunday. Buehler logged 5 1/3 innings and allowed two runs. The bullpen kept Houston quiet thereafter, protecting a lead spurred by Manny Machado and Brian Dozier. Machado scored twice and Dozier smacked a go-ahead, two-run double in the first inning.
Buehler, the 24-year-old right-hander, does not lack confidence. Earlier this week, Dozier asked Buehler to provide a scouting report of himself. Buehler informed his new teammate that he pitches a lot like Astros ace Justin Verlander. Dozier chuckled as he recounted the story — but he acknowledged that Buehler wasn’t far off the mark.
“I was impressed,” Dozier said. “I like how he competes on the mound.”
Buehler (5-4, 3.63 earned-run average) could not match Verlander’s output on Friday, when the 35-year-old veteran struck out 14 and pitched into the eighth inning. But Buehler did enough to keep the Astros at bay and ease the stress around the Dodgers (62-51) as they prepared for a trip to Oakland and Colorado.
The team earned a day off on Monday. They played 17 days in a row after the All-Star break, all against opponents with playoff aspirations.
The Dodgers went 9-8 during this stretch and finished Sunday tied for first place with Arizona in the National League West.
“I’ll take it,” closer Kenley Jansen said. “Yeah, you look back and question yourself, this and that, but the thing is we played hard. That’s the one thing I liked about it. We played hard. And we got everything done, and that’s all you can worry about. It’s a winning record.”
The Astros had a chance for a sweep. Houston arrived at Dodger Stadium with second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa and catcher Brian McCann all on the disabled list. The rest of the roster remains stacked: After Verlander dominated on Friday, the Astros hung a 14-0 defeat on their hosts on Saturday. It was up to Buehler to stem the tide on Sunday.
The afternoon did not start well. The first batter of the game was Astros outfielder George Springer, the most valuable player of the World Series and the scourge of Dodgers fans. Springer treated Buehler like he treated Yu Darvish in Game 7. Buehler tried a first-pitch fastball. Springer clobbered a 452-foot solo homer.
“It was 96 mph, it was down and he clipped it,” Buehler said. “As much as he ambushed me, or whatever, it’s still a fastball and it’s still over the plate. He put a good swing and he hit it out of the park. It happens.”
The tide turned on Springer in the bottom of the inning. Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole gave up a leadoff walk to Joc Pederson and a single to Machado. With two outs, Dozier cracked a curveball into left-center field.
The ball behaved like a sinking line drive. Springer ranged to his right and dove. His glove found the baseball, but he could not secure it. The ball rattled onto the grass as Dozier chugged into second base and the runners scored.
“He did a really good job tracking it down,” Dozier said. “I thought for sure it was in the gap. It hung up there longer than I thought. I thought he caught it, but obviously he didn’t. So, whew. A sigh of relief.”
Buehler was fresh off his best start since May. A microfracture in his ribcage halted an excellent rookie campaign, and the Dodgers did him few favors during a disjointed rehabilitation which veered between minor-league outings and a stint in the big-league bullpen. Buehler returned to form last week against Milwaukee, striking out seven during seven innings of one-run baseball. He had altered his curveball grip to improve the consistency of the pitch.
Buehler looked the part again on Sunday. He opened the third inning by pumping a 97-mph fastball past former Vanderbilt teammate Tony Kemp. After Cole struck out, Springer took a walk. Springer tried to steal second, but Yasmani Grandal threw him out. Springer mangled his left thumb on the slide and left the game.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch said X-rays didn’t reveal any damage, but he didn’t know the extent of the injury.
The Dodgers padded their lead in the third. Machado led off with a single. Cody Bellinger punished Cole for a hanging curve with an RBI double.
Buehler defused a would-be Astros rally in the fourth, keeping his opponents off the board despite hitting Alex Bregman with a fastball and giving up a single to Marwin Gonzalez. He was less fortunate in the fifth. Kemp pounced on a slider for Houston’s second solo homery. Buehler expected to weather some friendly chirping from his friend.
“Yeah, I’ll hear about it,” Buehler said. “But we won. So that’s OK.”
Buehler could not finish the sixth. Bregman greeted him with a double. Gonzalez walked. As Dylan Floro warmed up in the bullpen, Buehler struck out Tyler White. Floro entered with two runners aboard and cleaned up the mess. He jammed J.D. Davis with a 93-mph sinker and Davis grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to keep the Dodgers in front.
In 10 outings with the Dodgers, Floro has allowed only four hits and two walks.
“My confidence level is just high,” Floro said. “I want to be the guy in there, getting the big groundball double play, like today. Stuff like that is unbelievable.”
The Astros put runners on base in the seventh, eighth and ninth. None advanced to second. Jansen shut the door for his 31st save of the season and Buehler’s fifth victory.
“We pitched really well today,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I thought Walker came out and was really good.”