Walker Buehler Takes Over as Dodgers Ace

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — The October air sizzled with excitement and suffocated with 103-degree game-time heat when Clayton Kershaw wound up and fired a heater of his own, a first-pitch fastball to Houston’s George Springer, to start Game 1 of the now intensely controversial 2017 World Series.

High atop Dodger Stadium’s playing field, in an upper deck seat by the left-field foul pole, one significant piece of Los Angeles’s future watched with his little sister, ticket in hand, soaking in the atmosphere.

Walker Buehler was only 22, with sky-high hopes and ambitions. He had been a September call-up, asked to stick around the Dodgers’ spring complex in Arizona in case of a postseason injury. Now, the man whom the Dodgers had internally pegged as their next-generation ace was off duty. He could simply enjoy watching Kershaw, the future Hall of Famer from whom, if things went as planned, the torch would one day pass to him.

That day, symbolically at least, will arrive Friday when the Dodgers open their season in Denver. It is Buehler who will draw his first career opening day start. It is Kershaw, who has nine of them, including every opener when he’s been healthy dating back to 2011, who will spectate.

“Watching his maturation process has been incredibly fun and rewarding,” Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, said of Buehler. “It’s exactly how you’d draw it up in the most ideal of circumstances. And then to watch it play out the way it has, obviously he’s had some really good veteran pitchers around him to help expedite that, but it also says a ton about him.”

Now 27 and coming off a career year in which his 25 starts with two or fewer runs allowed led the majors, Buehler arrived in Los Angeles with a generational arm and a blue blood’s brashness. He immediately charmed and amused his Dodgers teammates with sarcastic quips and bold proclamations, then fully won them over with his competitive zeal.

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

From the moment Buehler arrived in the majors to stay in 2018 until now, Kershaw, the man he watched from that upper deck seat in 2017, has toiled by his side. In his own way, each of these men has nipped at greatness with every tuck-in of his Dodgers’ jersey. More often than not, both Buehler and Kershaw have stuck the landing.

“He’s always been very gracious to me and given me a lot of time that he probably didn’t need to, especially those first couple of years,” Buehler said of Kershaw one afternoon last week during an interview outside the team’s spring clubhouse.

Dubbed “Buetane” by his Vanderbilt teammates, a moniker that has been stitched onto his gloves, Buehler described his role in the relationship with Kershaw as “probably the annoying little brother more than anything.”

He added: “Any interaction with him for a long time was cool for me. Hopefully, I’ve grown out of that a little bit. But it’s still Clayton Kershaw, and he’s still a walking statue, if you will, so to get to know him outside of that has been really cool.”

Kershaw, 34, chuckles at the “annoying little brother” reference and quickly rebuts it. Rather, the iconic left-hander describes their relationship as “friends.” Kershaw, who was limited to 22 starts last season and was sidelined during the postseason with left forearm and elbow discomfort, is perplexed by the attention to this opening day and is quick to deflect any assist attributed to him in Buehler’s development.

“Everybody expects that because I was here when Walker was coming up that I was going to be this mentor to him,” Kershaw said. “I didn’t want to do that, and he didn’t want me to do that, and so I didn’t.”

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

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

“Even when Walker was a young, cocky ballplayer, Clayton Kershaw was always intrigued and liked Walker,” Manager Dave Roberts said. “So when a future Hall of Famer is warmed up and gives a young ballplayer the benefit of the doubt, it shows that he sees something special in the player and in the person.”

Said Friedman: “The dynamic between them is really fun to watch.”

That Buehler even ended up as Kershaw’s teammate is just one more example of the vagaries of baseball. The Dodgers, along with every other team, loved Buehler leading up to the 2015 amateur draft. But Buehler suffered an elbow injury in his final college season that ultimately led to Tommy John surgery. The Dodgers, with the 24th overall pick, thought they could steal a bargain and sweated it out from the middle of the first round until the 23rd pick was made, allowing Buehler to fall to them.

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

Buehler produced career bests last year in ERA (2.47), wins (16), innings pitched (207 ⅔) and starts (33). Most meaningful, he said, are the 200 innings. It goes back to his boyhood following the Cincinnati Reds, and his Tommy John rehabilitation with Bronson Arroyo, who was then pitching for the Reds. Arroyo threw 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 that Bronson Arroyo was the guy you wanted to watch, but I’ve always thought that was a really, really cool thing,” Buehler, who is a native of Lexington, Ky., said. “And that 200-inning mark, being fewer and fewer people getting there, makes it a little bit more special.”

That workload — and Buehler’s appreciation of it — is perhaps the biggest example of his maturation and development into a true staff ace.

“When you’re young, you want to create value for yourself,” he said. “You want to be really, really good and strike everyone out. Now, I take more pride in doing things valuable for our team. Being healthy and being consistently good is more of my focus.”

Off the field, Buehler has also worked to improve his diet. He and his wife cut out gluten for a time last year, and he said he plans to do so again this year. Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson, who played with Buehler at Vanderbilt, remembers him as being the king of snacks. And Colorado pitcher Ben Bowden tells an uproarious story of the time Vanderbilt was playing in the Dominican Republic, when Buehler left an open bag of Goldfish crackers on his bed and didn’t realize, upon returning to the room, that ants had swarmed the bag. He hoisted the bag, opened his mouth and poured before realizing he was ingesting goldfish and ants.

“True story. That was a tough one,” Buehler said, smiling and admitting, “I still have a few vices in the gummy bear drawer.”

But he has a growing toolbox. He impressed Kershaw last year by adding a changeup and a cutter. Wood raves about his “ability to create” in the same way a jazz musician improvises. Buehler has been known to add a pitch to his repertoire immediately after being impressed by a rival throwing it.

“There’s not many guys out there who can learn different pitches like that — that fast,” Kershaw said. “That can be a weapon.”

Already a two-time All-Star, Buehler finished fourth in N.L. Cy Young balloting last year. Over 103 career appearances, including 94 starts, he has recorded just 13 losses (40-13).

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

He allowed that, in drawing the opening day assignment, “you have to be humbled and a little overwhelmed,” which marks his first curveball of the season.

Seriously? The haughty hurler, humbled?

“I think I may have gotten a little better over the past couple of years, but it still comes out every once in a while,” Buehler said.

His legendary rotation-mate concurs.

“Oh no, he’s cocky,” Kershaw said. “For sure. It works. It also goes the other way, too. When he doesn’t feel good, or when he isn’t where he thinks he is supposed to be, he puts in a lot of work to make sure he is good.”

Said Friedman: “He’s pitching in a big market, with a rabid fan base, with expectations to win a World Series every year. Some guys early in their career would shy away from that, or find it intimidating. He’s leaned into it and relished in it and really thrived, I think, in part because of it.”