LOS ANGELES – The nods. Did you see the nods?
Walker Buehler had given up the baseball Monday afternoon, handed it over to the next guy, on the unofficial first day of fall, that according to the baseball calendar.
He didn’t want to go, probably. Guys like Walker Buehler hardly ever do. They don’t want to be saved. They don’t want to be tired. Nobody’s ever tired at 24 anyway. They don’t fear what’s next, third time through the lineup, fourth time, whatever. They don’t want help. They got this.
Maybe it’s the conviction of youth or the conviction of recent history or the conviction that comes with a 99-mph fastball. All of that, probably. It’s a gift, that time in your life when you are exactly what you knew you’d be, other than maybe the curveball not being especially cooperative, when something like 50,000 people are there to witness it, and they know and you know you are impenetrable. And it’s only getting started.
So afterward, when he’s asked not if he expected to win or had a good feeling he’d win or even really liked his chances, but if he knew he’d win, Buehler smiled and said, “I won’t say yes. But, yes.”
There was a way to the World Series had the Los Angeles Dodgers not won 5-2 Monday afternoon, had Buehler been just gutty and possibly overexposed to the Colorado Rockies, had the nine-wins-in-10-games Rockies gone 10 wins in 11 games. But that way wouldn’t have looked as clean, and would have had to go through some sort of bullpen game in Chicago and against Jon Lester, which is now the Rockies’ problem and not theirs.
A lot of time and effort had gone into just getting to a 163rd game, same as the Rockies, and they’d lived a long time with the notion they were underachieving. They’re still the wholly talented, wholly stocked Dodgers that seemed a step slow from the start, that never really seemed to shake Game 7, but a division series game against the Atlanta Braves on Thursday – at home, with some rest, behind Clayton Kershaw – also seems normal. Closer to upright.
So, yeah, the way to the World Series was better when Buehler didn’t allow a hit until one was out in the sixth inning, his 19th batter. When Buehler arrived with a fastball that settled in at 98 mph, that hopped to 99, when the Rockies hunted early fastballs and the kid was more than happy to live with harmless contact. When Buehler was still standing out there in the seventh inning, up 5-0, the outs still coming.
If you ever want to see a group of grown men line up behind a kid in a moment they find entirely important, give that kid one of those crooked smiles and a fastball that hisses, a fastball that buzzes inside and destroys Trevor Story’s bat in the second inning, a slider that fools Nolan Arenado before that, a seamless repertoire that feeds his moxie, and moxie that feeds his seamless repertoire.
“I had no doubt,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “There’s about 38 other players and coaches in there that also had no doubt.”
Kershaw, who’s had a pretty good run at impenetrable himself and also knows of its fickler elements, calls it “a competitive bone.”
“His compete,” Kershaw said, “is off the charts.”
He then grinned at a few minutes of Buehler mid-game, when pitching coach Rick Honeycutt came looking for Buehler before the sixth inning and discovered him in deep conversation with Kershaw and Rich Hill. The problem, it seemed, was Buehler’s curveball. It was being futzy, just not coming out of his hand right, so he’d grabbed the two veterans with two of the better curveballs in the game and requested a brief tutorial. Seventy-some pitches into his start. Seeing as there likely wasn’t enough time to rebuild his curveball in the hallway behind the dugout, he was advised to believe in it, to let it go, to trust it. It’d be fine.
“That’s Walker,” Kershaw said.
And, that’s about the whole list.
“I mean, not during the game,” Kershaw said, laughing, then added, “I like him a lot.”
Roberts came to get Buehler with two out in the seventh inning. By then, Buehler had allowed one hit. He’d walked three, including his last batter, which summoned Roberts. In the waning days of the season, a season that needed just a little more saving, Buehler in his final four starts allowed two earned runs in 26 2/3 innings. What mattered, though, were these three hours on this afternoon, all that was left of the regular season, and the start the Dodgers believed he’d earned. The one they needed him to make.
So, Buehler surrendered the ball (reluctantly). He strode down the slope of the mound, toward the dugout and the end of his day and a win when the Dodgers absolutely had to have it. He reached the grass and looked into the crowd. It was on its feet. It was calling his name.
It was then that Walker Buehler nodded. Twice.
Yeah, he had that. He had that.
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