World Series Game 3: Even in marathon win, Walker Buehler proves ready for mantle of Dodgers ace

LOS ANGELES — The Dodgers won Game 3 of the World Series 3-2 to the Red Sox in an 18-inning marathon on Friday, and it’s now a two to one series lead for the Red Sox. Given that the game shattered records for the longest ever in a World Series and there were 11 innings played after he left the game, it might be easy to forget about the work of young Dodgers starter Walker Buehler. 

In the hot take internet era where sometimes it seems like we should require oven mitts to deal with the scorchers, it would probably be a bit too hot to call the Dodgers’ rookie right-hander the ace of the staff. After all, he’s in the same rotation with future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw, who is only very slightly removed from his prime. Further, Buehler has only made 23 career regular-season starts. 

Still, in watching Buehler slice through the mighty Red Sox offense that has carved up some pretty damn good pitching in the playoffs, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’ll be looking back in two or three years at Game 3 of the 2018 World Series and remembering it as the moment that cemented Buehler as the ace of the Dodgers. 

With Kershaw’s opt-out clause looming and knowing his history of back injuries, it’s entirely possible that’s what we just watched. Man, was he brilliant or what? 

In the first inning, Buehler struck out the first two hitters in Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts before getting a routine fly. 

There was one problem. He needed 26 pitches to get through that inning. If that kind of pace kept up, Buehler was going to be fortunate to finish the fifth inning. Starting in the second inning, Buehler got much more efficient. Here’s his pitch count by inning: 

1st: 26
2nd: 13
3rd: 16
4th: 13
5th: 11
6th: 14
7th: 15

Rebounding from an inefficient first inning to get through seven is pretty ace-like. Buehler’s margin for error was razor thin too, since the only Dodgers run was a third-inning Joc Pederson homer. Sure, Jansen coughed up the lead, but Buehler did his job and then some. He also left enough Dodgers’ bullpen to allow them to prevail after 18 grueling innings. 

In his seven innings of work, he allowed just two hits (both singles) and didn’t walk anyone while striking out seven. He even caught Jackie Bradley Jr. trying to leave early on a stolen base, meaning Buehler eventually only faced one hitter over the minimum in seven innings. 

He seemed to get stronger as the game wore on. His final batter was Hank Aaron Award winner J.D. Martinez. He got Martinez swinging with a 98.2 mph fastball on his 108th pitch. 

Perhaps most remarkable there was Buehler hadn’t previously thrown more than 105 pitches in a game in 2018. And yet, north of that mark, he was as strong as when the game started. That’s ace-like as well. 

We can even throw another layer on this one. This was a must-win game for the Dodgers and they won it due in large part to the work of Buehler. 

In a must-win game, who do you most want to see on the mound? Your ace.

That’s Walker Buehler for the Dodgers right now, and we might have just witnessed an actual changing of the guard in Dodger Stadium. Buehler started the season in Triple-A with Clayton Freaking Kershaw heading up the big-league rotation. This is yet another reminder in a long line of them how much can change in one baseball season. 

There’s been a build to this. Buehler had a 1.55 ERA in his last 12 regular season starts, striking out 87 in 75 1/3 innings. He started the all-important tiebreaker game for the NL West against the Rockies, stifling them for one hit in 6 2/3 scoreless innings. He also started Game 7 of the NLCS (one earned run in 4 2/3 innings on a short leash) and the Dodgers once again lined him up for a Game 7 start in the World Series, should we get to witness one. 

What we’re seeing come into focus is the road to Buehler becoming the known-and-accepted Dodgers ace.

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