GLANDAL, Arizona – The October air sizzled with excitement and suffocated from 103-degree heat during a game when Clayton Kershaw finished and released his own heater, a quick ball from Houston’s George Springer to start Game 1 of the now highly controversial 2017 World Series .
High above the Dodger Stadium playing field, on the upper deck seat next to a foul on the left field, an important part of the future of Los Angeles, watched with his little sister, ticket in hand, soaking up the atmosphere.
Walker Buhler was only 22, with incredible hopes and ambitions. He was called in September, asked to stay around the Dodgers’ spring complex in Arizona in the event of a post-season injury. Now the man the Dodgers had inwardly identified as their next-generation ace was out of service. He could just enjoy watching Kershaw, the future Hall of Fame member, from whom, if things went according to plan, the torch would one day pass to him.
That day, at least symbolically, will arrive on Friday when the Dodgers open their season in Denver. Buhler is the one who will make his first career start. Kershaw, who has nine of them, including each discoverer when he was healthy since 2011, will be watching.
“Watching him mature was incredibly fun and rewarding,” Andrew Friedman, president of the Dodgers baseball, told Buhler. “That’s exactly how you would draw it in the most ideal circumstances. And then, to watch it play out the way it happened, he obviously had some really good veteran pitchers around him to help speed it up, but it also says a lot about him. ”
Now 27 and out of a career year in which his 25s begin with two or fewer runs allowed, leading the leading players, Buhler arrived in Los Angeles with the hand of a generation and the audacity of blue blood. He immediately charmed and entertained his Dodgers teammates with sarcastic jokes and bold proclamations, after which he completely won them over with his racing zeal.
“He’s not afraid of anyone or anything,” said Alex Wood, a San Francisco Giants incumbent who became close friends with Buhler during their stay in Los Angeles.
From the moment Buhler arrived in the majors to stay in 2018 until now, Kershaw, the man he watched from that upper deck seat in 2017, has worked hard for him. In their own way, each of these men has managed to achieve greatness with each insertion of the Dodgers shirt. More often, both Buhler and Kershaw blocked the landing.
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“He has always been very kind to me and has given me a lot of time, which he probably didn’t need, especially during the first few years,” Buhler told Kershaw last afternoon in an interview with the team’s spring club.
Called “Buetane” by his teammates from Vanderbilt, a nickname that is sewn on his gloves, Buehler describes his role in the relationship with Kershaw as “probably the most annoying little brother of all.”
He added: “Any interaction with him has long been cool for me. I hope I grew up a little bit of that. But it’s still Clayton Kershaw, and he’s still a walking statue, if you will, so getting to know him outside of that was really great.
Kershaw, 34, smiles at the mention of the “annoying little brother” and quickly denies it. Rather, the iconic leftist describes their relationship as “friends.” Kershaw, who was limited to 22 starts last season and was removed in the post-season with discomfort in his left forearm and elbow, is confused by the attention to this first day and quickly diverts any assistance attributed to him in Buhler’s development.
“Everyone expects this, because I was here when Walker came to be this mentor for him,” Kershaw said. “I didn’t want to do that, and he didn’t want to do it, so I didn’t do it.
He added: “I learn from him perhaps as much or more than he learns from me. He knows all the new technology, and I really don’t. It’s really nice to talk to him about this. Our personalities are completely different. But the friendship built over the last few years is great. “
The Dodgers appreciated the connection and the results, both on and off the field.
“Even when Walker was a young, cheeky ball player, Clayton Kershaw was always intrigued and liked Walker,” said manager Dave Roberts. “So when a future Hall of Fame participant is warmed up and gives a young ball player the benefit of doubt, it shows that he sees something special in the player and in the person.”
Friedman said: “The dynamics between them are really fun to watch.”
The fact that Buhler even turned out to be Kershaw’s teammate is just another example of the vagaries of baseball. The Dodgers, along with every other team, loved Buhler, leading the amateur draft in 2015. But Buhler suffered an elbow injury in his final season in college that eventually led to Tommy John’s surgery. The Dodgers, with their 24th overall pick, thought they could steal a bargain and sweated from the middle of the first round to the 23rd pick, allowing Buehler to fall out of them.
“Obviously it wasn’t necessarily the way he painted it, but I hope that when he looks back on his career, he’ll look at it as casually as we do,” Friedman said.
Buhler made the best of his career last year in the ERA (2.47), wins (16), assists (207 ⅔) and starts (33). The most significant, he said, are the 200 innings. This goes back to his childhood after the Cincinnati Reds and his rehabilitation of Tommy John with Bronson Arroyo, who was then directing for the Reds. Arroyo made 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 person you want to watch, but I’ve always thought it was a really, really great thing,” said Buhler, a native of Lexington, Kentucky. “And this 200-inning estimate, as fewer and fewer people come there, makes it a little more special.”
This workload – and Buhler’s gratitude for it – is perhaps the greatest example of his maturing and developing into a real staff ace.
“When you’re young, you want to create value for yourself,” he said. “You want to be really, really good and cross everyone out. Now I am more proud to do things that are valuable to our team. Being healthy and constantly being good is more of my focus. “
Off-site, Buhler is also working to improve his diet. He and his wife gave up gluten for a while last year, and he said he plans to do it again this year. Atlanta’s Dunsby Swanson, who played with Buhler in Vanderbilt, remembers him as the king of snacks. And Colorado pitcher Ben Bowden tells a noisy story about when Vanderbilt was playing in the Dominican Republic, when Buhler left an open bag of goldfish cookies on his bed and didn’t realize when he returned to the room that the ants were full of bags. . He picked up the bag, opened his mouth, and poured it out before realizing he was swallowing goldfish and ants.
“It’s a real story. It was hard,” Buhler said, smiling and admitting, “I still have a few flaws in the sticky bear drawer.”
But he has a growing toolbox. He impressed Kershaw last year by adding a shift and a cutter. Wood admires his “ability to create” in the same way that a jazz musician improvises. It is known that Buhler added a tone to his repertoire as soon as he was impressed by the throwing of an opponent.
“There aren’t many guys who can learn different tones this way – so fast,” Kershaw said. “It could be a weapon.”
Already a two-time All Star, Buehler finished fourth in the NL Cy Young poll last year. Over 103 career appearances, including 94 starts, he recorded only 13 losses (40-13).
“There’s something about taking the ball and wanting to take responsibility,” Buhler said. “That’s a big motivation for me.”
He admitted that when pulling the task on the opening day, “you have to be humble and a little overwhelmed”, which marks his first crooked ball of the season.
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“I think I may have gotten a little better in the last few years, but it still comes out from time to time,” Buhler said.
His legendary ally in the rotation agrees.
“Oh, no, he’s cheeky,” Kershaw said. “Sure. He works. He also goes the other way. When he’s not feeling well or when he’s not where he thinks he should be, he does a lot of work to make sure he’s good.”
Friedman said: “He is performing in a big market, with a fierce fan base, with the expectation of winning World Series every year. Some boys at the beginning of their careers would deviate from this or find it frightening. He leaned over it and enjoyed it, and he’s really thriving, I think, in part because of it. “