Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
Walker Buehler is baseball’s best young pitcher.
In a season in which 25-year-old Shane Bieber was next-level dominant, 26-year-old Lucas Giolito tossed a no-hitter and 26-year-old Max Fried emerged as the ace of the Atlanta Braves staff, Buehler was something of an afterthought.
Part of that had to do with a nagging blister problem that limited him to eight starts during the regular season, and there was a real question of just how much of a factor he would be in October.
Manager Dave Roberts kept him on a short leash in his first three postseason starts before turning him loose in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, when he tossed six shutout innings with the Los Angeles Dodgers facing elimination.
On Friday night, he was virtually unhittable.
“That might have been the best I’ve ever seen his stuff,” catcher Austin Barnes told reporters after L.A.’s 6-2 victory at Globe Life Park.
The 26-year-old struck out four of the first six batters he faced, and by the time the Rays finally recorded their first hit in the bottom of the fifth inning, they were already trailing 5-0, and the game was essentially over.
Buehler’s final line: 6.0 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 10 K
With that, he joined some elite company in the Dodgers organization:
Postseason success is nothing new for the Vanderbilt product.
After Friday night’s gem, Buehler has a 1.76 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 56.1 innings over his last 10 postseason starts. That includes seven scoreless frames of two-hit ball in his only other World Series start against a stacked Boston Red Sox lineup in 2018.
Regular-season success is one thing. Buehler has experienced plenty of that as well with a 3.15 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 365.2 career innings. But his ability to rise to the occasion when it matters most is what separates him from an impressive pack of ascending aces.
No disrespect to the aforementioned Fried and Giolito, who both threw the ball well this postseason, but no pitcher under the age of 27 has a resume that stacks up to what Buehler has accomplished in his playoff career.
So what’s the key to his success?
It helps to have a lethal arsenal of secondary pitches. He threw 14 knuckle-curves, 12 sliders and eight cutters, according to Ronald Blum of the Associated Press, including this wipeout slider to end his night:
However, it’s his ability to consistently spot his upper-90s fastball and get ahead of hitters that sets him apart.
He has thrown his fastball 55.6 percent of the time this year and averages 97.1 mph with good life on the pitch, holding opposing hitters to a .146 average and just four extra-base hits for a feeble .073 ISO.
Leaning heavily on that pitch, he started 15 of the 21 batters he faced Friday with a strike. That allowed him to mix his repertoire effectively and keep hitters off balance. Just ask Tampa Bay second baseman Brandon Lowe, who looked positively lost while going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts after hitting a pair of home runs in Game 2.
The big fastball. The lethal breaking stuff. The poise. The track record. Buehler checks all the boxes.
The MLB landscape is littered with exciting young pitching, and there will be plenty of contenders for the title of best pitcher in baseball when that torch is ready to be passed by Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer and others in the years to come.
For one night at least, there was no debate about who the best young arm in the game is, and the Dodgers are one step closer to a World Series title as a result.