The Dodgers established themselves as MLB’s best team during the regular season, at least as much as a team can while playing only games within one of three regions. They are the favorites to win the championship, though even after their 43-17 season the Dodgers enter the wild card series at their most vulnerable, at the whim of the variance of a best-of-3 series.
The Brewers are the opponent, respected to be sure, even without having spent a day of the 2020 season over .500. But it could have been any of the glut of similar teams vying for the eight spot, like the Giants or Phillies. No matter, the Dodgers seem to focus internally.
When asked after Sunday’s regular season finale if the team was scoreboard watching to see who they might play in the opening round, manager Dave Roberts said, “Honestly I have no idea and, not to be crass, but I just really don’t care.”
So yes, the Dodgers are confident, and with good reason. They open the wild card round by sending the physical embodiment of that belief in self to the mound, with Walker Buehler starting Game 1.
“I think it’s pretty clear and evident that there’s no lack of confidence in Walker Buehler’s game,” third baseman Justin Turner said Tuesday. “Over the past couple years when we needed a big start out of him, whether that’s a Game 163 or a playoff game, he answers the bell.”
Buehler has a 2.72 ERA in six postseason starts, with 44 strikeouts and 10 walks in 36⅓ innings. Adding in his scoreless start pitching into the seventh in the Game 163 tiebreaker to win the National League West in 2018, that “playoff” ERA for Buehler shrinks to 2.30.
But it hasn’t all been roses. Technically his first postseason game came six days after that Game 163, and Buehler pitched poorly in Game 3 of the NLDS in Atlanta. He allowed five runs in five innings, including a grand slam to Ronald Acuña Jr., which if you’re an MLB.tv subscriber you’ve probably seen roughly 200 times during commercial breaks.
Buehler lost his next start, too, falling in Game 3 of the NLCS to the Brewers at Dodger Stadium. He pitched relatively well, lasting seven innings, but allowed four runs in a game in which the Dodgers were shut out by Jhoulys Chacin and an annoyingly effective quartet of relievers, if you’re wondering what formula Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell is shooting for in tonight’s Game 1.
After those two Dodgers losses in his first two postseason starts, Buehler’s intrepidity didn’t wane.
“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 Tuesday. “I think the biggest thing, I’ve just been on some really good teams that when I’ve failed, it hasn’t cost us.”
In four postseason starts since, Buehler has allowed two total runs on only 13 hits, while striking out 29 and walking six in 24⅓ innings.
That playoff promise was no doubt on the Dodgers’ minds as Buehler ramped up for this pandemic-shortened season a little slower than some of his teammates. He didn’t throw as much during the four-month shutdown, and most of his July and even some of August were dedicated to Buehler building up innings like a second spring training.
Having those really good teammates, and buoyed by expanded rosters — first 30 players, then 28 — the Dodgers were able to fill in whatever innings were needed with a bigger bullpen than they’ve ever had. Whatever Buehler could give them early could be absorbed, knowing that the goal was just that he was ready once the postseason began.
There were bumps along the way, of course, in the form of a blister on his right index finger that landed Buehler on the injured list twice. Down the stretch, he threw simulated games and bullpen sessions with the finger covered, again with the goal that Buehler be ready for the playoffs.
The blister sure didn’t seem to bother Buehler in his last regular season tune-up on Thursday against the A’s, striking out six while allowing no runs, looking very much like the ace he is. But he was pulled after four innings of a meaningless game, having shown what he needed to show.
Now, the cover, and the proverbial kid gloves, are off, and we get to see just how unfettered Buehler will be.
Game 1 info
Time: 7:08 p.m. PT