LOS ANGELES — There was that one night in late summer when Walker Buehler waited on his pitching coach, watched him climb the dugout steps, still a bit stiff from his back surgery and also 65 years of life, hurried him along with his eyes, because he needed answers and needed them soon. Buehler isn’t often given to exasperation, but there’d been a couple home runs and a few doubles, and this was serious, and when Rick Honeycutt finally arrived, Buehler spoke first, “What, am I tipping pitches?”
Honeycutt muted a smile. He really loves this kid. Loves the fight in him. Loves he doesn’t wrap his whole life around the 99-mph fastball the way some might, especially at 25 years old, when pitchers wear top-end velo like four-paycheck gold chains and don’t eat for a month.
“Well,” he told Buehler, “they’re probably not quite where you think they’re at.”
Then they talked about getting back to pitching better.
“He wants to be good,” Honeycutt said Thursday night, an hour after Buehler had one-hit the Washington Nationals over six innings, after the Los Angeles Dodgers had won, 6-0, in the first game of this National League Division Series, after Buehler and three relievers on a staff Honeycutt called his favorite, “in all my years,” had gotten the ball to Clayton Kershaw with a series lead.
So it was in the fourth inning, before all of that, that Honeycutt found himself headed toward Buehler again in a game that was about to change, one way or the other. Granted a Game 1 because this is who he is now, after 14 wins over 30 starts and more than 180 innings, Buehler had skimmed through the first 10 Nationals batters, then walked three of the next four batters, each on full-count pitches. The Dodgers led by a run. Nationals starter Patrick Corbin had again become precise and clever after an erratic — and ultimately terminal, based on the Nationals’ thready bullpen — 31-pitch first inning.
Amid all that, and 53,000 people with clenched jaws, and the veteran switch-hitter Asdrúbal Cabrera standing by, Buehler watched Honeycutt approach. Buehler’s catcher, 24-year-old Will Smith, making his first postseason start alongside Buehler’s fifth, stood beside the pitcher and also watched and waited. Teammates hung on the dugout rail or pawed at the dirt or stared into the darkness. The Nationals perhaps wondered if this would be their moment, the sort of swing they’d seen so often on so many nights in the season’s second half, the way so many games had gone their way straight into the wild-card elimination of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Honeycutt has quiet eyes, the sort of face that’s on the verge of a soft smile and a manner of speaking marbled because of his native Georgia. He’d talked more than one young buck out of this sort of trouble, and probably talked a few into some too along the way. Buehler had required 26 pitches in the inning, through the top and heart of the Nationals’ order, had just missed the strike zone on a few of them, and Honeycutt mused during his walk that the next few pitches were likely to decide the baseball game. And he was good with that. There’s always at least one moment like it, especially in October. Maybe, if you’re lucky, just that one.
Cabrera is probably what you’d call an old 33, if only because it seems he’s been around for too long to be just 33. He’s played in his share of Octobers, seen plenty of pitches that decided baseball games, and hit some. Just two innings before, he’d worked Buehler for seven pitches, got an idea of how the fastball, slider and cutter played, then lined out. He’d only been a National for two months, and that was long enough to catch some of who the Nationals had become, hitting .323 over 38 games, nearly a hundred points higher than what he’d hit for the Rangers over 93. He’d not faced Buehler before Thursday night, so that part, if none of the rest, was new to him, the raw stuff, the whippy arm, the uncommon belief in who he is and where he’s headed. In his past three postseason starts, beginning with Game 5 of the NLCS against the Brewers, through Game 3 of the World Series against the Boston Red Sox and by the end of Thursday night, Buehler has allowed a run in 17 ⅔ innings, walked three and struck out 22.
“Well, if you know Walker, it’s not surprising,” teammate Justin Turner said. “He’s very, very, very, very, very confident in himself.”
He smiled. It’s not cocky if you thump people every five days. And the Dodgers seem to have given in to it willingly, handing him the baseball ahead of Kershaw and Hyun-jin Ryu, respectively a three-time Cy Young Award winner and this year’s National League ERA leader.
“He grows on you, yeah,” Kershaw said earlier in the day. “I mean he's, I think that, over time, he kind of wears you down. No, I mean Walker is great. I loved being around him. His understanding of pitching is really actually pretty cool. I think that in the new age of spin-rate analytics, all that stuff, he knows way more than I do and to get to hear him talk about it and maybe try to apply some of it is good. I think that we can kind of rub off on each other because I'm a little bit more traditional old school, I guess you could say, and to get to kind of bounce ideas off each other and things like that is fun. His competitiveness, his ability to compete is really fun to watch and obviously his stuff speaks for itself. So I enjoy having him around and you never know what he’s going to say, so it's great, it's fun.”
If this is going to work, if the Dodgers are to win 10 more times before everybody goes home, then it starts with Buehler. Game 1. Get the first, then think about the second. If the division series were to go five games, if Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer and a team that soared into the postseason proves a handful again, then it will be Buehler who will pitch. This was his series to start. It might be his to end.
“It's, you don't know until you see it and we have seen it over the last couple years,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “And there's guys that want those opportunities like those big moments and want to be the guy. So 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 tonight. And the delivery, the tempo, all consistent. Fastball command to all quadrants. The slower breaking ball, I loved with the depth. The cutter, when he needed it. So that's a really good lineup over there and for him to go six it was really — we needed that one.”
Honeycutt arrived at the slope of the mound, looked up to Buehler and said, “Hey, everything’s good. Just focus right here.”
And then, “I like curveball to this guy.”
In none of the seven previous pitches to Cabrera, two innings earlier, had Walker thrown the curveball. Cabrera hadn’t seen it. Honeycutt dragged the conversation longer, into other areas of the scouting report on Cabrera, but really he was killing time, slowing Buehler’s already steady heartbeat, taking some of the snap from a three-men-on, one-run game, crowd getting antsy, middle innings coming.
Everybody nodded. Honeycutt returned to the dugout. Smith returned to home plate. Cabrera arrived, batting left-handed.
Buehler threw the curveball, a sharp one, bounced it. Cabrera swung over the top of it for strike one. The curveball had worked. So Smith asked for another.
“I didn’t have a problem with throwing another one,” Honeycutt said. “He has enough weapons in his arsenal. But I did like, for me, I did like slowing Cabrera down there.”
“Well,” said Smith, “curveballs are good down and in to him. He swung at a curveball in the dirt. Then another.”
The second, Cabrera topped straight back to Buehler.
“Yeah, I mean obviously I have a lot of trust in Honey and Will and what they see and there's a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes that we do that kind of leads to decisions we make, and I'm not going to go into the details of it,” Buehler said, “but we felt good about where that pitch was for me and to him, so made a pitch and got out of it.”
Buehler jogged a few steps and underhanded the ball to first baseman David Freese, the first of seven consecutive Nationals he’d retire through the end of the sixth inning. By the end, the first of three wins the Dodgers will need in the coming six days.
“He’s confident,” Smith said. “In his mind, a run is not crossing. That’s how it should be. That’s why he’s good.”
That hour and some later, when it all seemed so easy in hindsight, when a 6-0 game seems to forget all the hard edges along the way, Honeycutt called those piggybacked curveballs the difference, along with all the others. He grinned.
“They’re all big outs,” he said.
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