LOS ANGELES — One year ago, he was neither the heir apparent ace in Los Angeles nor the commanding voice spitting a four-letter word over the microphone to a packed stadium.
No, one year ago, Walker Buehler was just another schmo sitting in the Dodger Stadium upper deck at Games 1 and 2 of the World Series. He and a few other prospects occupied seats the club reserved for them way down near the left field foul pole.
Now, the man who needed a ticket to last year’s Fall Classic could be the key to the Dodgers’ first World Series title in three decades.
Just don’t give him the microphone.
“We never let it get to that point,” says Colorado minor league pitcher Ben Bowden, a roommate of Buehler’s at Vanderbilt, chuckling. “We never let him get the mic.”
The way the kid known as “Bue-tane” to college teammates is going now, look out: He’s torching big league hitters and public airwaves alike. All gas and confidence, Buehler, 24, is the kid who will ease the pain when Clayton Kershaw finally fades away in Hollywood.
Each start now is the biggest of his life, and even in Game 3 of the National League Division Series against Atlanta, following a disastrous second inning, he was able to “recalibrate”—as manager Dave Roberts termed it—to throw three shutout innings that gave the Dodgers a chance to get back in the game and save the bullpen.
Before that, entrusted with the ball to win the Dodgers’ sixth consecutive NL West title in Game 163 on Oct. 1, Buehler responded with 6.2 shutout innings of dazzling brilliance.
When he was done, teammates pushed him out of the dugout and into the first curtain call of his life. And after the game, the Dodgers pulled him onto the field for the now infamous live interview.
“This is the loudest I’ve ever seen this place!” Buehler told the crowd. “We need this the whole f–king playoffs!”
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No one close to Buehler was surprised in the least. Always, Buehler is known to speak his mind, offer up a sarcastic remark or a quick quip, often with an extra dose of spice.
“I sent a text to my dad, ‘Look what Buehler did, no surprise there,'” Dansby Swanson, another Vanderbilt teammate and Atlanta’s injured shortstop, says. “And he was like, ‘Unfortunately, no. That’s about right.'”
Says Bowden: “That could not be any less surprising to me. That is such a Walker thing to do. I was crying laughing when I saw that.”
Asked afterward if he knew he was going to defeat the Rockies that day, Buehler reeled off another beauty: “I don’t want to say yes…but yes.”
The Dodgers are amused by his confidence and taken with his ability. Having a 99 mph fastball that one scout calls “like a Wiffle ball, it moves so much” will do that. So, too, will a top-shelf changeup, curve, slider and cut fastball that work as an insurance policy when one or two of his pitches are off and as a steamroller when everything is on.
And he continues to tinker with them, none ever perfect because, in his world, he should dominate every start. In mid-September, he told pitching coach Rick Honeycutt he had a new grip on his slider and he was going to test-drive it in that day’s game. By Game 163, he was tossing that pitch in the 82-84 mph range, and when he’s doing that and firing his fastball at 99, most hitters have approximately the same chance against him as a field of grass has against a John Deere.
“That’s him, he wants to be perfect,” says Carson Fulmer, the Chicago White Sox pitcher and another of Buehler’s Vanderbilt teammates. “He could throw eight shutout innings and give up one hit, and that’s what he comes away thinking he needs to work on.”
“He blows me away,” Honeycutt says.
Honeycutt is not alone. Buehler posted a 1.55 ERA over his final 12 regular-season starts. “I don’t know, it’s been one of the better stretches of my career,” he says.
You think? He finished the season with the lowest WHIP (0.92) among rookie pitchers with 20 or more starts since 1913, and with the second-lowest opponents’ on-base percentage (.249) during that time, according to the Dodgers.
“His talent is off the charts,” Kershaw says. “I mean, you can’t teach throwing a ball that hard or being able to spin a ball like that.”
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While nobody around Los Angeles is exactly eager to see Kershaw go, whenever the three-time Cy Young winner’s days are done—and an opt-out clause could trigger his free agency this winter—Buehler should have things well under control.
“The real deal,” one veteran scout says. “Good chance to be a top-of-the-rotation stud.”
Buehler is a wisp of a man with a whip of an arm. At 6’2″ and 175 pounds, he comes packaged a little like Tim Lincecum, only with shorter hair. Watching his coming-out party in Game 163, Dodgers president Stan Kasten kept going back to his days as the Atlanta Braves’ president, when Steve Avery produced a breakout season—and October—at 21 in 1991. The talent, the mound presence, the poise, the youth—Kasten remembers it all. But most of all, he says, “I remember he got us to the World Series.”
The Dodgers began bird-dogging Buehler in earnest his sophomore year at Vanderbilt—area scout Marty Lamb did much of the early heavy-lifting—then into the Cape Cod League that summer. But the right-hander was so good (Vanderbilt won the College World Series in 2014) that they figured there was no way he’d still be around when they picked 24th in the June 2015 draft.
“We were fortunate he had some health concerns that allowed him to get to us,” says Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations.
Knowing he needed elbow reconstruction, the Dodgers picked him anyway. Buehler had the surgery two months later.
Now, that draft pick could not look more inspired.
“The arc [of Buehler’s development] is very steep and trends vertical at a rapid pace,” Roberts says. “I think being around a lot of our veteran players, namely Clayton and Rich [Hill], and how they prepare, being around Rick Honeycutt, who instills confidence and is positive [helps]. I think he’s embraced all the information as well.”
Says Buehler: “As weird as it sounds, I probably talk pitching with [left-hander Alex] Wood more than anybody. We throw completely differently. But we talk a lot in the dugout. For me, a lot of my confidence is, I believe, if I execute what I want to do, I’m going to have success.
“I pick guys’ brains and try and learn. But at the same time, I think it boils down to what kind of pitches I execute. To put that on yourself, and be a critic of yourself, I think is the most important thing.”
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It’s a philosophy he shares with Wood. Yet he’s also discovered during his still-brief time in the majors (32 games, 23 starts into this postseason) that cheese and chutzpah guarantee nothing.
“Justin Bour hit a home run against me in Miami, and we look back and the ball’s on the chalk in the other batter’s box,” Buehler says, referring to how far out of the strike zone the pitch landed. “And it’s like, what am I supposed to do? That’s kind of just part of the freaky nature of this game. But at the same time, there’s times when you execute and get beat and times when you don’t execute and win. It’s just odd.”
He is a thinking man’s pitcher who leaves nothing to chance. The Dodgers normally start games at 10 past the hour during the regular season—7:10 p.m., 1:10 p.m.—but television dictated Game 163 start at 1:09 p.m. Given that and the 90-degree afternoon, Buehler told Honeycutt, “It’s a little bit warm today, I know the adrenaline is going to be there, I’m actually going to start pregame warmups a minute later today.”
“I love it,” Honeycutt says. “It’s just part of the process.”
This is no small part of why Buehler grades out as ace material. It isn’t simply multiple dominant pitches. It’s that he has the know-how to make magic out of them. One of the most important aspects of his baseball education at Vanderbilt is what he learned from late mental skills coach Ken Ravizza.
“The big thing that I still really deal with is green-light/red-light/yellow-light situations,” Buehler says. “Things are going great, you’re in green. You walk a guy, then you learn to assess yourself and say, ‘This is a yellow light. It can go either way. I’ve got to figure out how to get back to green, right?’ And the red light is when you give up a three-run homer. And you have to learn a different process for each one.—to either continue it or reverse it.”
Those conversations stay with Buehler to this day, and he used them to recalibrate in his playoff debut against Atlanta after yielding a grand slam to Ronald Acuna Jr. in a five-run second inning. Talk about a red-light situation. Buehler was able to recompose himself and retire the next 10 Braves in order before leaving for a pinch-hitter in the sixth as the Dodgers tied the game.
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Ravizza, a legendary sports psychologist who worked with numerous major league teams, players and universities over the past four decades and most recently was on staff with the Chicago Cubs, would visit Vanderbilt for four or five days at a time and do two-hour sessions before practice and three-hour sessions afterward.
“We’d cater food, all sorts of s–t,” Buehler says. “Because we were sucking him for everything he had. I think if you were to look back at some of the big games that we played, most of the guys you’d find breathing in their at-bat or pausing to take full breaths. That stuff’s learned, it doesn’t just happen.”
Some things, though, do just happen that are unavoidable: Like the screaming liner up the middle in late May that sent Buehler to the disabled list with a rib microfracture. In August, he survived a nasty collision with teammate Max Muncy in foul territory near first base in a game in Denver, and in September, he underwent X-rays on his left foot following another start.
The liner off of his rib scared everybody, but once he came back strong from that, the rest of these mishaps have simply provided an opening for the Dodgers to return fire on their cocky—“In a good way,” Wood says—young phenom. Now after an outing, teammates often will razz him: “Hey, you made it through a start without getting an X-ray!”
“He’s had some unfortunate luck,” second baseman Chase Utley says, chuckling. “He doesn’t have a lot of meat on his bones, so maybe this offseason he can put a little more on, have a little more cushion.”
It’s certainly not for lack of effort.
“Walker always has snacks, everywhere,” Bowden says. “The dude has a serious problem when it comes to snacks. A lot of gummies, things like that.”
In autumn of Buehler’s junior season at Vandy, the Commodores were playing games in the Dominican Republic when, after a long day at the yard, they returned to their hotel and Buehler made a run for the bag of cheddar Goldfish crackers he had left in the middle of his bed.
Walker Buehler @buehlersdayoff
Good luck to the guys who will get the call today. Pretty cool day for us three! @LieutenantDans7 @Carson_Fulmer https://t.co/QqnAXA7gMO
“He took the bag, held it up above his mouth and poured, and Goldfish started falling into his mouth,” Bowden says. “But a bunch of ants had started getting into the goldfish during the day, and now he had goldfish and ants all over his face and he started freaking out and yelling. That was a good time.”
Swanson laughs uproariously when he hears the story.
“No meals, constant snacks,” Swanson says. “I’ve never seen someone order a bigger meal and then eat only half of it. That’s just what he does. He orders the big meal and only eats half of it. He just lets the other half go.
“He’s priceless. That’s the only way to describe him. He’s a gem. I love that kid.”
The feeling is mutual, though you would never know it in the heat of battle. Asked before his Game 3 start against Swanson’s Braves about their relationship, Buehler offered only an icy brush-off, another window into the inner fire that propels Buehler toward the competitive stratosphere.
“In all honesty, man, I don’t really see a point to talk about it,” Buehler said. “He’s wearing an Atlanta Braves jersey, and if I hang out with him in the offseason, that’s fine. But we’re in the playoffs, so I don’t really care.”
Off the field, he does.
After attending the World Series last fall for Games 1 and 2, Buehler returned to Los Angeles a few days later on the day of Game 7, but this time he wasn’t taking those upper-deck seats. He was flying from his Nashville home for Fulmer’s wedding. Though he became ill with strep throat, he couldn’t turn back, not when he and Swanson were among the groomsmen.
He watched the last six innings of the Dodgers’ 5-1 loss to Houston on his iPad in the back of a cab en route to the wedding site during a traffic-heavy, hour-and-20-minute ride.
“So it was great,” he says, trademark sarcasm thick as the L.A. freeway traffic.
“I woke up that next morning, Ubered to an urgent care place and they gave me a penicillin shot, which I didn’t even know was a strep throat thing.”
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He missed the rehearsal dinner but felt good enough to meet his buddies for drinks afterward.
“He’s one of those guys who never forgets who his friends are,” Fulmer says. “I don’t know if a conversation ever goes by where my parents don’t ask how he is.”
Twelve months later, he’s doing fine, better than that even, as he tries to pitch the Dodgers to their first World Series title since 1988. Hold the microphones, and the ants.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.