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Walker Buehler comes full circle, facing the Braves in NLCS Game 1

Buehler pitches against the team he faced in his first postseason start, in 2018.

Divisional Round - Los Angeles Dodgers v Atlanta Braves - Game Three Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Walker Buehler gets the ball for the Dodgers for the third Game 1 start in as many weeks, this time to start the National League Championship Series on Monday night (5:08 p.m. PT, Fox) against the Braves.

That the Braves are the opponent is relevant to Buehler, since his first postseason start came in Atlanta, in Game 3 of the 2018 NLDS, the last postseason meeting between these two teams. That start is memorable to Buehler not just for starting his playoff career, but for his failure, as he put it.

“Out of success, I think you can become more confident, or the nervousness kind of takes a step back because you’ve done it before. But I think when you fail, you have to kind of reassess, and then that confidence is built from the ground up,” Buehler said before his wild card series start. “I think the biggest thing, I’ve just been on some really good teams that when I’ve failed, it hasn’t cost us.”

Buehler was pushed to Game 3 in that 2018 NLDS because he was needed to start the tiebreaker game to decide the National League West, which he won six days earlier by pitching scoreless baseball into the seventh against Colorado. Game 3 was scoreless until the third inning, when Buehler walked three (one intentionally), including pitcher Sean Newcomb to force in a run. Then, Ronald Acuña Jr. did this:

Acuña’s grand slam gave Atlanta a 5-0 lead, and came after Buehler missed on a 3-0 pitch but it was called a strike. His next pitch was a strike, and was not missed.

That home run is still fresh on the minds of Braves fans, who tweeted me that clip upwards of seven times after I tweeted that Buehler would start Game 1.

In Game 1 against the Padres last Tuesday, Buehler ran into similar trouble, this time in the second inning. He walked three in the inning to load the bases with one out, but struck out Jurickson Profar and Trent Grisham to keep the game scoreless, including battling back from a 3-0 count on Grisham.

“It felt like Atlanta to me, the moments that will speed up and things like that,” Buehler said after that start. “I feel like I’d been there before, and kind of learned from that. Luckily I made some pitches and got out of it.”

Buehler struck out eight in his four innings against San Diego, just like he did a week before against Milwaukee. He has a 2.06 ERA in seven postseason starts since that 2018 start in Atlanta, with 53 strikeouts and 13 walks in 39⅓ innings. He’s not the same pitcher he was two years ago.

The Dodgers have been managing Buehler’s blister, using him on a short leash, with three starts of exactly four innings since returning from the injured list. They used a starter to piggyback with Buehler in each of his playoff starts this year, Julio Urías for three innings against San Diego, and Dustin May for two innings against Milwaukee.

But further removed from his second injured list stint, Buehler and the Dodgers are more confident in the blister not being as much of a hindrance. His four innings last week had a lot to do with his four walks, which ran up his pitch count.

“I do believe that the 90-plus pitches in four innings, if we can spread those out a little bit better, being more efficient, that looks like six [innings] and 90 [pitches],” manager Dave Roberts said Sunday. “That still goes with watching every inning, but I do think that Walker’s in the best place as far as that, that he has been in the last few weeks.”

With potentially seven games in seven days in this NLCS, any sort of length from pitchers will be a huge boon.


Game 1 info

Time: 5:08 p.m. PT

TV: Fox