Dodgers' Walker Buehler, still in 'search mode,' goes on injured list with hip injury

Even before Walker Buehler took the mound Tuesday night, his manager was “backpedaling” on expectations for the once star pitcher.

Weeks earlier, when Buehler first returned from his second career Tommy John surgery, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts guessed it would take six or seven starts for the former All-Star to get his legs back under him. Two months, Roberts hoped, and Buehler should start looking more like his old self.

On the day of Buehler’s eighth start, however, Roberts’ tone had shifted.

Before Tuesday’s game, Roberts said he didn’t “want it to feel like there’s one particular number [of starts by when] everything has to click” for Buehler, adding that such expectations weren’t “fair, or realistic” given the difficulties of returning from a second Tommy John surgery.

Then, after watching Buehler give up seven runs in four innings to a lightweight Colorado Rockies lineup — and take a third-inning comebacker off an already ailing hip — Roberts indicated a break might be in the pitcher’s near future.

“Given how he’s feeling, how he’s throwing the baseball and what happened tonight with that liner off his hip, it’s certainly going to be a conversation,” Roberts said.

A day later, the decision was official.

Buehler was placed on the injured list Wednesday with a hip injury. His comeback season had suffered another setback.

“He’s still in search mode,” Roberts said. “So, as he’s getting back to health, I think for the mind and some clarity, I think this will be a good thing.”

Technically, Buehler is being sidelined by right hip inflammation. Roberts said the pitcher had been dealing with right hip discomfort in recent weeks (it required a mid-game visit from trainers last week) and that the comebacker he took on his left side Tuesday caused the team further “concern,” even though it didn’t force Buehler out of the game.

“He’s had hip issues,” Roberts said of Buehler, whose placement on the IL also cleared a roster spot for the return of Bobby Miller as Wednesday night’s starter. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Still, Buehler revealed Tuesday that the idea of a midseason break had been percolating within the team recently — as the 29-year-old’s struggles persisted longer than he and the team had anticipated.

“At some point, we’ve thought about kind of taking a blow, taking a month off, taking a week off, whatever,” Buehler said. “Trying to figure out how to get me reset.”

Buehler will get that chance now, with Roberts being careful Wednesday to not put a timeline on his return.

Part of that will depend on the health of Buehler’s hip. Equally important, though, will be the quality of Buehler’s stuff as he progresses through his rehab, with the Dodgers eager to see improved form before bringing him back to their big-league staff.

“It’s really hard to figure out or determine the timing [of when he might be back],” Roberts said. “Because the truth is, they all have to be lined up for it to make sense to bring him back. And that’s what Walker wants too.”

There hasn’t been any one reason for Buehler’s failings this year.

Assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness noted Buehler’s problem with both finding the zone early in counts (his 60.7% first-strike percentage is second-lowest of his career) and staying away from it when trying to put batters away (opponents are batting .239 against Buehler with two strikes, well above the league-average mark of .168).

“He’s been in the zone too much with two strikes,” McGuiness said. “And, I mean this guy was one of the best first pitch-strike pitchers in baseball [before his injury], and he’s just not been himself 0-0.”

Buehler’s pitch mix has been a work in progress, too.

While his four-seamer has averaged 95.5 mph (a slight increase from 2022), he hasn’t been able to overpower opponents as he once did, suffering a .389 batting average against the pitch.

An increasingly heavy combination of sinkers and cutters hasn’t helped much either, in part because of “unlucky [results] with some of the balls put into play,” McGuiness said, but also because of inconsistent execution that Buehler bemoaned Tuesday.

“I mean, when they all suck, you try and figure out which ones suck the least,” he said of his seven-pitch repertoire. “It sucks to feel kind of invaluable, or like you’re hampering your team.”

For all of the frustration Buehler expressed after Tuesday night’s clunker, however, there was one goal he hoped wasn’t yet out of reach.

Despite his performance (or lack thereof) to this point, he still wants to help the team come October.

Despite the speed bumps his return campaign has already encountered, he still feels capable of cleaning things up and playing a key role in the postseason.

“I’m going to do whatever I need to do to feel like I can help our team at the end of the year, and do everything in my power to be valuable enough to be on those [postseason] rosters,” Buehler said. “Whatever we think we need to do to get me ready for the end of the year, that’s what we’re going to do.”

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