Clayton Kershaw has been the best pitcher on the planet for the better part of a decade now. The hyper-competitive lefty with a four-pitch repertoire and a devastating overhand curveball has been the anchor of the Los Angeles Dodgers rotation through one of the most successful runs in Dodgers history, which has included a record six straight division titles and a pennant. Numerous baseball writers have written hundreds of articles comparing Kershaw’s exploits to those of Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax, who can make a very good case for being the best pitcher to ever grace the mound. Yet things can change fast in this game, and sometimes those changes can sneak up on you.
While Kershaw has been battling injuries for the past three years, missing 25 starts and losing 3-4 mph off his fastball while still managing to produce at a high level when he does start, Walker Buehler has been working his way back from injuries of his own to challenge the erstwhile veteran for the top spot in the Dodgers rotation.
During the past two months, with the Dodgers locked in a heated three-way battle for the National League West division, Buehler has been phenomenal when his team needs him the most. According to Baseball Reference, since August 1, Buehler has put up a 4-1 record and a minuscule 1.59 ERA, numbers that only probable Cy Young Award winners Blake Snell and Jacob DeGrom can match. Heading into the final days of the season, with the Dodgers neck-and-neck with the Colorado Rockies for the division lead and an automatic berth in the Divisional Playoff Series on the line, the Dodgers had their rotation set for veteran Rich Hill to pitch a potential one-game playoff against the Rockies should the teams finish tied. On the final day of the season, and both teams locked in a first-place tie, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had a decision to make.
If both teams won, the Dodgers would have to face the Rockies in a one-game playoff. The loser of that game would have to travel to Chicago the day after to face the Cubs in a winner-take-all wild card game. A trip to the wild card game would dramatically lessen the Dodgers chances at a second consecutive National League pennant, as both teams often have to use their best pitcher to win that game, which leaves their pitching rotations behind compared to the rested rotations of the other playoff teams. Winning the division was tantamount to the Dodgers hopes of bringing home their first World Series title since 1988.
The Dodgers are a team known for playing the odds, and the odds were that both teams would win on the final day, which meant that a one-game playoff was likely. To make matters worse, the Dodgers played before the Rockies on the final day, and thus had no idea what the Rockies would do. Roberts had Hill and Buehler available. When decision time came, Roberts changed his mind, selecting Hill to pitch the final regular season game and saving Buehler for the potential playoff.
Both teams won on that final day of the regular season, forcing the Dodgers and Rockies into a one-game playoff to determine the National League West champion. The loser of the game would face an almost insurmountable uphill battle through the National League playoffs, and the Dodgers turned to a 23-year-old rookie in what amounted to a must-win situation.
Buehler was up to the task, holding 24 Colorado hitters to a single hit while walking only three before Dave Roberts lifted him with two outs in the seventh and a 5-0 lead. Behind Buehler’s strong start, the Dodgers cruised to a 5-2 win, clinched their sixth consecutive National League title, and earned the No. 2 seed in the National League playoffs. A new star was born.
The road to glory hasn’t been an easy one for Buehler. An elbow injury in college forced him to undergo Tommy John surgery, and potentially hurt his draft stock. The Dodgers still thought enough of him to risk their first-round pick in the 2015 draft, even though at the time of his selection the timetable for his return was over a year away. Buehler finally made his professional debut near the end of the next season, 15 months after he was drafted, appearing in three games. In those three games he showed the promise that the Dodgers had been banking on when they selected him, not allowing a single hit in five innings pitched.
In 2017, after a successful minor league campaign, Buehler was called up in the September roster expansion. At the age of 22, he was a full year ahead of a typical minor-league prospect making his major league debut. He was still raw and needed development, but the talent was there.
This season, while most talented prospects are getting in a full season of minor-league development and awaiting their first September call-up, Buehler was pitching like a Cy Young Award candidate. Sandy Koufax himself did not reach stardom until he was 25. A quick look at Brooks Baseball’s data shows that Buehler has the stuff of an ace pitcher — a 97 mph fastball that he can either sink or ride in on a right-handed batter, complemented with a 92 mph cutter that breaks in on left-handed hitters. His hard-biting curveball is already one of the best in the game, and he can also pull out a quick-breaking slider.
As one star falls, another one rises. The Dodgers begin their run in the 2018 playoffs tonight against the Atlanta Braves, and if their new young ace can continue the magical run he has been on the past two months, they may very well win their second consecutive National League pennant.