LOS ANGELES — “My name is Walker Buehler,” he said, “and my average fastball last year was 97.1 mph.”
That’s how Buehler introduced himself to his Los Angeles Dodgers teammates in spring training a couple of years ago. It’s how Ross Stripling remembers it, at least. Stripling relayed that story — an anecdote also referenced by The Athletic in recent days — to demonstrate the uncommon, unwavering confidence of the 25-year-old right-hander who dominated the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Thursday night.
The decision to open the postseason with Buehler instead of Clayton Kershaw or Hyun-Jin Ryu surprised many, but not those within the Dodgers’ clubhouse. The baseball postseason is particularly unpredictable, especially during first-round series that stretch no more than five games. But with Buehler on the mound, the Dodgers could rely on two certainties: that his stuff would be overpowering, and that the moment would embolden him.
Buehler wound up giving up only one hit through six innings, lifting L.A. to a 6-0, tone-setting victory — and none of his teammates seemed to bat an eye.
“If you know Walker, it’s not surprising,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “He’s very, very, very, very, very confident in himself.”
As a rookie last fall, Buehler pitched the Dodgers to a division title in Game 163, then dropped an F-bomb during an on-field interview. He later held the Milwaukee Brewers to one run in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series and twirled seven scoreless against the Boston Red Sox in Game 3 of the Fall Classic, on a night when his Dodgers had to win.
Buehler struck out eight batters Thursday and has now collected 37 K’s through his first five postseason starts, two shy of the club record set by Sandy Koufax, the Hall of Fame left-hander who watched Game 1 from the first row. Before Buehler, no Dodgers pitcher had ever thrown at least six scoreless innings while giving up no more than one hit in the playoffs.
“There’s guys that want those opportunities, those big moments, and want to be the guy,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Walker, time and time again, just knows how to temper, control his emotions and transfer that into the delivery, the execution of pitches. And today, from that first throw, he was on point.”
Buehler’s sixth pitch hit 99 mph and blew past the bat of Trea Turner for his first strikeout. Two batters later, against the potential NL MVP in Anthony Rendon, he fell behind 3-0, then spotted three pitches for strikes — a four-seam fastball up and away, a two-seamer low and a slider low and outside. While Rendon argued over the call, the Dodger Stadium crowd of 53,095 erupted. Buehler roared as he walked off the mound, salivating the energy. He had already seized the moment.
“He’s an animal,” Dodgers rookie second baseman Gavin Lux said. “He’s the most confident human being on the planet.”
Buehler spent the last few weeks of the regular season tweaking with his pitches, as he often does. He gave up eight runs and walked nine hitters over his final 16 innings, but he didn’t care about the results. In his last start, he threw every pitch as hard as he could to free up his mechanics.
When the postseason came, however, Roberts noticed a more decisive Buehler. He found something that worked during the pregame bullpen and stuck with it, hardly ever straying. His delivery and his tempo remained consistent. He threw his fastball with command to all four quadrants of the strike zone. The slow breaking ball made an appearance. The cutter was there when he needed it.
“His stuff’s electric,” Dodgers utilityman Chris Taylor said. “And I think he’d even tell you he didn’t have his best stuff tonight.”
Buehler’s command noticeably strayed in the top of the fourth. He threw 26 pitches to five batters, loading the bases with two outs and drawing a visit from pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. Buehler followed with a couple of low-80s knuckle-curveballs to Asdrubal Cabrera, fielded a slow tapper back to the mound, lobbed the ball over to first base and ended the only threat the Nationals could muster.
From there, Buehler rolled again.
He finished retiring seven consecutive hitters on only 26 pitches, preserving what was then only a two-run lead. It put his team in an optimal position. The Dodgers beat the Nationals’ most rested pitcher, Patrick Corbin, in Game 1 and will head into Friday’s matchup against Stephen Strasburg — who threw 34 pitches out of the bullpen in Tuesday’s wild-card game — with a chance to put this series on the brink.
“He loves the spotlight,” Turner said of Buehler, his postseason ERA now 3.03 through 29⅔ innings. “He loves pitching big games. He loves this atmosphere. He answers the bell every time. It was good to see him go out there and be Walker.”
Buehler finished the 2019 regular season with 14 wins, a 3.26 ERA and a 5.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the latter a significant jump from the prior year. Buehler got deeper into scouting opponents this season. Over time, he also learned how to compose himself when the pressure escalates. He reminds himself to simplify, to stick with what has worked previously, and to control his heart rate.
“Sometimes it helps to kind of embrace the atmosphere,” Buehler said. “Learning to do that, I think, has been the biggest thing for me, and luckily, it’s played out all right.”
Every member of the Dodgers’ clubhouse seems to have their own story of Buehler’s astounding arrogance. His candidness has disarmed many, but Buehler has learned to balance it with self-deprecation and has warranted his assertiveness with undeniable success. Will Smith, the Dodgers’ rookie catcher, grew up in Kentucky and occasionally played against Buehler in high school. He was noticeably cocky then, too.
“No one really threw 90,” Smith said, “and he was throwing 95.”
By the end of his run at Vanderbilt University, his fastball apparently reached 97 mph — 97.1, to be exact.
Stripling still laughs about that story — both at Buehler’s preciseness with the velocity and his willingness to share the information. Teammates have been teasing him about it for years. His cockiness stands out, even in the ecosystem of the Dodgers’ clubhouse.
“But he backs it up, and that’s what’s great,” Stripling said. “He’s not arrogant in a bad way. He’s arrogant in an awesome way.”
Cody Bellinger praises Walker Buehler’s performance in Game 1 of the NLDS vs. the Nationals.