Walker Buehler takes on the role of Dodgers Ace

GLENDALE, AZ 2017

High at the top of the Dodger Stadium, on the upper deck seat next to the foul pole on the left, is a significant part of the future of Los Angeles, which he watched with his younger sister, with a map in his hand, soaking up the atmosphere.

Walker Buehler was only 22 years old, with huge hopes and ambitions. He was called in September, asked to stay at the Dodgers complex in Arizona in case of a post-season injury. Now, the man the Dodgers internally labeled as his next-generation ace was out of duty. He could simply enjoy watching Kershaw, a future Hall of Fame member from whom, if things go as planned, the torch will one day pass on to him.

That day, at least symbolically, will arrive on Friday when the Dodgers open the season in Denver. Buehler is the one who will start his first career. Kershaw, who has nine, including every opener when he’s been healthy since 2011, will be watching.

“Watching his maturation process was incredibly fun and rewarding,” Andrew Friedman, president of Dodgers baseball operations, said of Buehler. “It is true how you would draw it in the most ideal circumstances. And then to watch it play out the way it has so far, he obviously had some really good veteran pitchers around him to help speed it up, but that also says a lot about him. ”

Now 27 years old and after a year of career in which his 25 starts with two or fewer allowed runs, Buehler arrived in Los Angeles with a generational hand and the audacity of blue blood. He immediately charmed and entertained his Dodgers teammates with sarcastic jokes and bold statements, and then completely won them over with his competitive zeal.

“He’s not afraid of anyone or anything,” said Alex Wood, a San Francisco Giants starter who became close friends with Buehler during their stay in Los Angeles.

From the moment Buehler arrived in the major to stay in 2018 until now, Kershaw, the man he watched from that upper deck in 2017, has struggled with him. In their own way, each of these people has bitten off the size with each tug of their Dodgers jersey. More often than not, both Buehler and Kershaw got stuck landing.

“He was always very kind to me and gave me a lot of time he probably didn’t need, especially in the first few years,” Buehler said of Kershaw one afternoon last week during an interview in front of the Spring Club.

Named “Buetane” by his Vanderbilt teammates, a nickname sewn on his gloves, Buehler described his role in relation to Kershaw as “probably a boring younger brother more than anything.”

He added: “Any interaction with him for a long time was cool to me. I hope I grew a little out of it. But it’s still Clayton Kershaw, and he’s still a walking statue, if you will, so it was great to meet him outside of that. ”

Kershaw, 34, laughs at the reference to “irritating little brother” and quickly denies it. Instead, the legendary left-hander describes their relationship as “friends”. Kershaw, who was limited to 22 starts last season and was off the field during the post-season due to discomfort in his left forearm and elbow, is confused by attention on this first day and quickly refuses any assistance attributed to him in Buehler’s development.

“Everyone expects it because I was here when Walker came to be his mentor,” Kershaw said. “I didn’t want to do it, and he didn’t want me to do it, so I didn’t.”

He added: “I learn from him maybe as much or more than he learns from me. He knows all the technological stuff of the new age, and I really don’t. It’s really good to talk to him about it. Our personalities are completely different. But the friendship that has been built in the last few years is great. “

The Dodgers appreciated the attitude and results, both on and off the field.

“Even when Walker was a young, cheeky player, Clayton Kershaw was always intrigued and loved Walker,” said manager Dave Roberts. “So, when a future member of the Hall of Fame warms up and gives the young footballer the advantage to doubt, it shows that he sees something special in the player and in person.”

Friedman said, “The dynamics between them are really fun to watch.”

That Buehler even ended up as Kershaw’s teammate is just another example of the whims of baseball. The Dodgers, along with all the other teams, loved Buehler leading the 2015 amateur draft. But Buehler suffered an elbow injury in his final college season that eventually led to Tommy John’s surgery. The Dodgers, with a 24th overall pick, thought they could steal cheaply and sweated from the middle of the first round to a 23rd pick, allowing Buehler to fall for them.

“Obviously, it wasn’t the way he necessarily drew it, but I hope that when he looks back on his career, he’ll look at it as casually as we do,” Friedman said.

Buehler achieved the best results of his career last year in the ERA (2.47), wins (16), substitutions (207 ⅔) and starts (33). The most significant, he said, are 200 innings. It dates back to his childhood after the Cincinnati Reds and the rehabilitation of Tommy John with Bronson Arroyo, who then played for the Reds. Arroyo scored 200 or more innings in eight of his nine seasons between 2005 and 2013 – and 199 in the ninth.

“A lot of people wouldn’t think Bronson Arroyo was the guy you wanted to watch, but I’ve always thought it was a really, really cool thing,” said Buehler, a native of Lexington, Ky. “And that 200-inning mark, with fewer and fewer people coming there, makes it a little more special.”

This burden – and Buehler’s appreciation of it – is perhaps the greatest example of his maturing and developing into a true personnel ace.

“When you’re young, you want to create value for yourself,” he said. “You want to be really, really good and throw everything out. Now I am more proud to do things worthwhile for our team. Being healthy and always good is more in my focus. ”

And off the field, Buehler also worked to improve his diet. He and his wife briefly cut out gluten last year, and he said he plans to do so this year as well. Atlanta, Dansby Swanson, who played with Buehler at Vanderbilt, remembers him as the king of snacks. And Colorado pitcher Ben Bowden tells a turbulent story about a time when Vanderbilt was playing in the Dominican Republic, when Buehler left an open bag of Goldfish crackers on his bed and didn’t realize when he returned to the room that ants had overwhelmed the bag. . He picked up the bag, opened his mouth, and poured it before realizing he was eating a goldfish and ants.

“True story. It was hard,” Buehler said, smiling and admitting, “I still have a few vices in the rubber bear drawer.”

But he has a growing toolbox. Last year he impressed Kershaw by adding a change and a cutter. Wood delighted with his “ability to create” in the same way that a jazz musician improvises. Buehler is known for adding tone to his repertoire right after he was impressed by a rival throw.

“There aren’t a lot of guys who can learn different tones that way – so fast,” Kershaw said. “It could be a weapon.”

Already a double Ol-Star, Buehler finished in fourth place in the NL Cy Young poll last year. Over 103 career appearances, including 94 starts, he recorded just 13 defeats (40-13).

“There’s something about taking the ball and wanting to be responsible,” Buehler said. “It’s a big motivation for me.”

He allowed that, when drawing a task on the opening day, “you have to be humiliated and a little overloaded”, which marks his first curve of the season.

Seriously? Arrogant pitcher, humiliated?

“I think I may have gotten a little better in the last few years, but that still comes up from time to time,” Buehler said.

His legendary counterpart in the rotation agrees.

“Oh, no, he’s confident,” Kershaw said. “Sure. It works. It goes the other way. When he’s not feeling well, or when he’s not where he thinks he should be, he puts in a lot of work to make sure.”

Friedman said: “He is marketing in a big market, with a furious fan base, with the expectation that he will win the World Series every year. Some guys at the beginning of their careers would shy away from it or find it intimidating. He leaned over it and enjoyed it and he really made progress, I think, in part because of that. ”

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