Dodgers’ Buehler embraces next stage of pitching evolution

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler is starting to move closer to his prior form when he always seemed to know where he was going.

LOS ANGELES – There was a confidence mixed with stubbornness that had come to define Walker Buehler performances of the past.

The Dodgers right-hander, who is starting to move closer to his prior form, always seemed to know where he was going when he was at his best and what it took to get there.

It wasn’t that Buehler refused to credit the opponent as a young pitcher performing at his peak abilities. He was more than aware of what he was up against.

But Buehler also knew what he had to work with. He knew his tool belt included a blazing fastball, pinpoint control and secondary pitches to envy. Buehler not only knew he could be successful on any given day, he exuded it.

Yet, on days when he was at the top of his game, he lauded his race car, not necessarily his ability as the driver. On days that did not go to plan, he blamed the inability to use the race car to its potential.

Opponents could hardly take offense that it was Buehler who dictated the terms. Even they knew that peak Buehler would make for a long day.

For two years, Buehler has longed for those days to return and there is now definitive proof they could be back on a regular basis.

A ‘huge’ anniversary

Buehler, who is set to start again Saturday in a road game against the Cincinnati Reds, just dominated the Reds last Saturday. In a flashback to his most dominating season in 2021, Buehler went six scoreless innings last weekend and gave up three hits with seven strikeouts against Cincinnati.

The two-year anniversary of his most recent win before that one will take place Friday.

“It’s huge,” Buehler said. “I haven’t won a game in the major leagues in almost two years. It’s big. I think especially the way that it happened, where it was very controlled and kind of command-based and still to have some punch in there, I think is huge for me going forward.

“(If) I had had crazy stuff and sprayed it all over and been good, I don’t know going forward if it’s as beneficial for me. So as weird as it is, it’s humbling that, this is probably what I have to do now. Maybe there’s a little more velo (or) maybe there’s a little more aggressiveness to it at some point. But pretty good step for me.”

Seemingly in a flash, a Dodgers rotation that started the season with question marks, now seems to have more options that it handle. A starting staff that was going to have to take it easy on left-hander James Paxton for his recent injury history and right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto because of previous once-a-week schedule now seems ahead of the schedule from where it was two months ago.

While that staff has added that familiar No. 21 of Buehler, there are differences too. That always was to be expected following a 2022 surgery that not only included the typical Tommy John ulnar collateral ligament repair but a forearm flexor tendon repair as well.

Key people helped recovery

The recovery was long and when he finished off his first win, following an extensive rehab that went another eight months after it seemed like he might be ready to return, Buehler was more introspective.

Asked what was different about Saturday’s outing than the two before it after his return, Buehler instinctively said, “I don’t know.”

But he did know. Buehler’s “I don’t know,” was more of a, “So, the story goes like this … ”

And how the story went was that Buehler credited pitching coach Mark Prior, along with assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness and bullpen coach Josh Bard for a slight adjustment that yielded significant results.

Buehler moved his feet on the pitching rubber away from the back where his toes would barely touch, to the middle where his whole foot was on the slab. Buehler called it six inches and gave a nod toward gaining a different perspective, while awakening the senses.

“(It) just makes everything look a little different,” Buehler said. “My body kind of lines up a little bit differently. We did that in the bullpen in San Francisco and liked what happened and luckily it kind of translated.”

Maybe Buehler keeps it that way or maybe he goes back to how it once was. Perhaps the introspection came because through one simple adjustment, he came to the realization that he isn’t the same pitcher he was as recently as three years ago. He is completing the transition from who he was to who he will be from now on.

“Where I used to stand, I could only do when I was young,” said Buehler, who was fourth in NL Cy Young Award voting in 2021 and then off the grid by June of 2022. “That’s kind of a tough pill for me to swallow, but we’ve moved on the rubber and lot of things kind of clicked into place.”

Buehler faces teamwork

Buehler admitted that more collaboration will come moving forward. We all grow. If it’s something we want bad enough, we learn to compromise.

“I was telling my wife that I finally have to start listening to people, not just doing whatever I want all the time, so that’s been an interesting transition for me,” Buehler said with a chuckle. “But I kind of heard some people out and it went better so unfortunately I’m gonna have to keep listening to everybody.”

The “unfortunate” part was said in jest. A wink and a nod to his stubborn side.

“Yeah, I mean, he’s confident by nature, but I still think that when you go out there and do it, that solidifies your confidence, certainly coming back from Tommy John,” manager Dave Roberts said. “So patience is one thing and not setting any expectations really, just going out there and competing and making good pitches and live with whatever result, and I think he did that.

“… I think from pitch one, he was trying to go out there and make quality pitches and I think that was his focus.”