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In Walker Buehler, Dodgers Have Their Big Game Pitcher

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(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Walker Buehler can’t pinpoint the exact moment he learned to love the big game. It’s something that just gradually happened over time.

The Dodgers will take it. In their 2015 first-round pick turned No. 1 prospect, they have found their big-game pitcher.

Buehler pitched six scoreless innings, gave up one hit, walked three and struck out eight in the Dodgers’ 6-0 win over the Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Thursday night. He retired eight of the first nine batters—five via strikeout—to give the Dodgers time to build an early lead and didn’t allow a hit after the second inning to help them keep it.

The outing put the 25-year-old righthander in the record books. According to statistician Ryan Spaeder, Buehler is the first pitcher in MLB history to strike out at least seven batters in each of his first five postseason appearances. The only other pitcher to do so in each of his first four playoff games is Hall of Famer Bob Gibson.

“You don’t know until you’ve seen it, and we’ve seen it the last couple years,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “There’s guys that want those opportunities, like those big moments and want to be the guy. Walker, time and time again, just knows how to temper (and) control his emotions, and transfer that into the delivery, the execution of pitches.”

Buehler has done this since his days at Vanderbilt. That was a compelling part of his resume when the Dodgers drafted him 24th overall in 2015.

Buehler started and won an NCAA regional championship game as a sophomore, sending Vanderbilt to super regionals and on its way to its first national championship. In his first career College World Series appearance two weeks later, he pitched 5.1 hitless innings of relief with seven strikeouts to earn the win against UC Irvine.

He did it again as a junior, tossing five scoreless innings in a regional final to again lift the Commodores into super regionals. In the College World Series, he pitched 6.2 innings with eight strikeouts in a deciding game against Texas Christian to put Vanderbilt back in the championship series for the second straight year.

His big-game dominance extended into the summer circuit. Pitching for Yarmouth-Dennis in the 2014 Cape Cod League between his sophomore and junior years, Buehler tossed 15.1 scoreless innings over two playoff starts—including eight shutout innings in the first game of the championship series—and was named postseason co-MVP.

“I didn’t really pitch in any big games in high school . . . but you get to college and you throw in some big games,” Buehler said. “I don’t know if there was a singular moment. I think it’s just a compounding effect of playing in games. There (are) certain feelings that you get­—nerves, adrenaline—that you do them enough times, they’re just normal. They’re different, but they’re normal. They don’t overwhelm you. I think it’s just that compound effect of being in there a few times where you know what’s going to happen and you know how to kind of use it.”

Buehler has shown over and over he knows how to use it at baseball’s highest level.

Given the start in the National League West tiebreaker game last year as a rookie, Buehler took a no-hitter into the sixth inning to lead the Dodgers to victory. In Game 7 of the National League Championship Series on the road, he gave up just one run in 4.2 innings to preserve an early Dodgers lead before handing it off to the bullpen.

And in his lone World Series start last season, Buehler pitched seven shutout innings, gave up two hits, walked none and struck out seven. It was the only time a starter held the Red Sox scoreless the entire postseason, and it would be the only World Series game the Dodgers would win.

"If you know Walker, it’s not surprising,” third baseman Justin Turner said. "He’s very, very, very, very, very confident in himself. He loves it. He thrives on these situations.”

Buehler’s continued big-game dominance is critical to the Dodgers' hopes of finally winning the World Series after losing it in back-to-back years.

Clayton Kershaw's playoff struggles are well-chronicled. Hyun-Jin Ryu surrendered 19 hits and 11 runs in 12 innings between the NLCS and World Series last year. Rich Hill has performed, but he’s also pitched more than five innings just twice in 10 postseason starts with the Dodgers.

In Buehler, the Dodgers have a starter who can take them deep into postseason games and dominate.

In that way, he is the living embodiment of the dream every team has for their first-round picks and No. 1 prospects.

"I think you try and be simple and do what you do and try to control your heart rate,” Buehler said. "Sometimes it helps to kind of embrace the atmosphere. Learning to do that has kind of been the biggest thing for me.”

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