ARLINGTON, Texas — Coronations do not do subtlety. They are as much an in-your-face proclamation of status as the 12,000 diamonds George IV ordered embedded in his crown for his extravagant coronation in Westminster Abbey in 1821. The baseball equivalent of such a coronation was the in-your-face fastball Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler wielded Friday night in World Series Game 3 to turn the Tampa Bay Rays into his serfs.
Hail, hail! Buehler, 26, is the best young pitcher in baseball, and certainly the No. 1 choice from the twenty-something set you would pick if you could have any such pitcher to win a big game.
Gerrit Cole is 30 years old. Jacob deGrom and Clayton Kershaw are 32. Max Scherzer is 35, Jon Lester is 36 and Justin Verlander is 37. Buehler officially arrived Friday night as next in line to the throne. What’s next is right now.
“He’s there,” Dodgers pitching coach Mike Prior said about Buehler reaching the most elite level of pitching. “He’s über-competitive, he wants the big games, he has the stuff … it’s only a matter now of doing it year after year, the way Clayton has done it.”
Almost predictably, at least as a Hollywood scriptwriter would have it, Buehler, with 10 strikeouts over six dominant innings in a 6–2 Los Angeles win, moved this series one day closer to Clayton Kershaw taking the ball in Game 5 with the chance to win the Dodgers’ first World Series title since 1988. Somebody ring John Williams to start working on the score.
The Dodgers lined up three of the top five swing and miss starters this postseason for the middle games—Buehler (No. 3 at 16.8%), Julio Urías (No. 5 at 15%) and Kershaw (No. 1 at 19.4%)—against the team that led the world in striking out this year.
“We’re set up in a good spot,” Prior said.
Buehler held to form in Game 3. In this age of information, in which pitchers get color-coded charts from roomfuls of analysts who plunge deep into the statistical weeds to find the smallest holes in bat paths in opposing hitters, what Buehler did in Game 3 was throwback stuff. You might as well have been watching Walter Johnson in 1925 to be watching Buehler at Globe Life Field.
He fairly dominated the Rays with just his fastball, though the obviousness of that would be like saying Yo Yo Ma dominated a music hall with just his cello. Buehler’s fastball is one of the most special singular pitches in baseball, given its velocity, spin and command. He did drop in several curveballs to play up the nastiness of the fastball, but hardly bothered to throw a few sliders and cutters until the fifth and sixth innings.
“His fastball was just so good we just stayed with it,” catcher Austin Barnes said. “You go in with a plan, but they never gave us a reason to go away from it. That might be the best I’ve ever seen his stuff.”
Somebody offered to Rays manager Kevin Cash that Buehler looked unhittable in the early innings.
“He was,” Cash said with gallows laughter. “You could see the fastball just popping through the zone. Spun a few breaking balls, but other than a few breaking balls here and there, it was very much a ‘Here it is: hit it’ approach. You understand why he’s so talented and destined for a lot of success. He’s got a really special fastball that just gets on hitters and he commands it well.”
Three days ago, as Buehler walked by me, he mentioned the number 2,700. Huh? “Got my fastball spin rate to 2,700,” he said proudly.
Buehler hit that personal, absurd high in NLCS Game 6 against Atlanta. It was 2,702 to be exact. Trevor Bauer is the only other pitcher who spun his four-seam fastball so fast in a game this year (minimum 50 fastballs.) Back in August, Buehler was spinning the pitch at only 2,516 rpms.
Because of the brief run-up that was summer camp, and because blisters on Buehler’s middle and index fingers popped up in September, the Dodgers slow-played Buehler all season. He made every start with at least five days of rest. He never threw more than 92 pitches.
The Dodgers can treat a 60-game season as calisthenics because they are that good. Everything was done for Buehler with a game like Game 3 in mind: to have Buehler at peak stuff in the World Series.
“I’m a fast-twitch guy,” he told me before his Game 3 start, “so it usually takes me a little longer to ramp up into a season. Right now, physically, I feel the best I have all year.”
Only the blisters threatened Buehler’s ascension to the throne, and the threat was very real. In NLDS Game 1 against San Diego, he gave up a run-scoring single to Austin Nola in the fourth inning. When the ball was returned to him on the mound, Buehler saw that it was streaked with his blood. One blister had ripped open. He faced one more batter and left the game with 95 pitches.
The blister on his index finger was aggravated by throwing sliders and cutters. The one on the middle finger turned hot when he threw a curveball. He wasn’t sure how he much he could spin the ball to get through his postseason starts.
“If it goes it goes,” he said. “I did pitch one game in the NCAAs throwing only three non-fastballs.”
He spoke to former teammate Rich Hill, who suffered through his own blister troubles. Hill recommended low-level laser therapy. The Los Angeles training staff tried Stan’s Rodeo Ointment, the homemade recipe of Stan Johnston, a former rodeo cowboy who was the Dodgers’ head trainer from 2000-06. Suffering from blisters caused by rope friction in his rodeo days, Johnson took years to develop a mixture of 12 active ingredients that smells like a medicine cabinet, looks like thick black goo and costs more than silver (about $35 an ounce). Josh Beckett used it to conquer blisters and pitch the Marlins to the 2003 World Series title.
Buehler would keep the fingers covered while throwing bullpens and on flat ground. The blisters became less and less of an issue. Meanwhile, his arm strength kept improving. The spin rate on his fastball, the key to its late life, kept rising.
Buehler was the worst kind of matchup for the Rays. Their starting lineup entered the game hitting a combined .192 on fastballs 96 mph and better—Buehler country. Other than Bauer’s fastball, none of those heaters have the hellacious spin Buehler’s fastball has now.
Buehler poured in 63% fastballs in Game 3. Other than a groundball double by Manuel Margot, the Rays could do nothing against them. They swung and missed 10 times against the pitch.
“He pitched with his fastball,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “He was aggressive with it. You know he’s going to be aggressive with it. It’s ‘Hit it if you can.’ He got a lot of swings and misses with it.”
Buehler already has a postseason resumé that would be the envy of veterans on their way out of the game. In 11 career postseason starts he is 3-1 with a 2.35 ERA and 12.18 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest strikeout rate of any pitcher who ever started at least 10 playoff games. His 83 career postseason strikeouts are the most ever by a pitcher at age 26. This postseason he is 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA and a strikeout rate of 14.04 per nine.
The man is just flat-out tough to beat. He has started 72 games in the majors, postseason included, and lost only nine times.
Urías and Kershaw, fully rested, follow him with their own swing and miss stuff. The Rays are in a spot of trouble and may have to win one of their familiar low-scoring games to get back into the series.
Postseason series are famed for turning on a dime, often when you least expect it. But Game 3 was as brutally obvious as Buehler’s fastball. He was just too, too much for Tampa Bay.
“It was just dominant, dominant stuff,” Cash said.
The game was more about Buehler than about any shortcomings of the Rays. This is his time. Jack Flaherty, Shane Bieber, Max Fried and Lucas Giolito are terrific young pitchers. But they don’t have the stuff or big-game pedigree that Buehler has at 26. Buehler used Game 3 to announce himself as the best young pitcher in baseball. Anybody who saw it knew it was as obvious as 12,000 diamonds.