Hernández: Why the evolution of Walker Buehler remains a 'process'

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One-run lead. Two men on. Full count. One of the best hitters in baseball at the plate.

What should he do?

Walker Buehler threw a slider, which Corey Seager fouled off.

Once again, what should he do?

Buehler did what he would have done before his second elbow reconstruction. He went to his Old Reliable. He threw a fastball.

Seager deposited the 96-mph heater halfway up the right field pavilion at Dodger Stadium, the three-run homer in the fifth inning ruining what was shaping into a promising start for Buehler.

Buehler’s trademark four-seam fastball isn’t what it used to be.

Buehler acknowledged that reality with how he chose to attack the Texas Rangers in the 3-2 loss on Wednesday night, throwing the pitch a career-low five times. Seager drove the point home.

“I just think there’s a little bit less on [the four-seam fastball] and little bit, for the lack of a better term, like, f— you behind it,” Buehler said.

Seven starts into his comeback, the 29-year-old Buehler is 1-4 with a 4.64 earned-run average. He remains in an exploratory phase, learning what works for him at this stage of his career and what doesn’t.

Rather than mourn the death of his signature pitch, Buehler tried to balance the frustration of defeat with optimism over the new discoveries that were made on this night.

“For the most part,” Buehler said, “I feel pretty good about it.”

More than 70% of his pitches were either cutters or sinkers, an uncharacteristic mix for the former fireballer. He experimented with a new variation of a slider.

“First time trying to pitch that way,” he said.

Buehler blanked the Rangers through four innings.

“I think he’s in the process of evolving,” manager Dave Roberts said. “It’s easy for him to put his head in the sand and go with what he’s always done. But the truth of the matter is he’s not the same pitcher after the second Tommy John [surgery].”

Buehler started the game by giving up a single to Marcus Semien and walking Seager but responded by forcing Adolis Garcia to ground into the double play. Josh Smith grounded out in the next at-bat, and Buehler was out of the first inning unscathed.

Smith and Nathaniel Lowe singled in successive at-bats in the fourth inning, but Buehler once again held the Rangers scoreless by striking out Wyatt Langford and Jonah Heim.

“I’m not going to walk out there and keep getting killed trying to do what I used to do,” Buehler said. “I want to be successful. I want to help our team win. And so if that means I have to adjust, that’s what I’ll have to do.”

The Dodgers entered the fifth inning with a 1-0 lead.

Leody Tavares singled to center field with one out and stole second. That’s when Buehler was struck by misfortune, as newly-acquired third baseman Cavan Biggio booted a grounder by Semien. Up next was Seager, who was the World Series MVP when Buehler was the ace of Dodgers’ title-winning team in 2020.

In the view of Roberts, the mistake Buehler made wasn’t that he threw Seager a fastball. The mistake was that he pitched to him at all.

“I just think if you look at that lineup and how they’re swinging, there’s one guy in there you really don’t want to beat you,” Roberts said. “With a base open, you really need to be a little more mindful instead of challenging him right there.”

Buehler said: “I tried to go in and kind of left it over the plate.”

Buehler’s final line: Five innings, three runs (two earned), seven hits, one walk and two strikeouts.

Watching from a visiting bench was a pitcher who understood the difficulty of the challenge Buehler was undertaking.

Rangers right-hander Nathan Eovaldi is one of only a couple of starting pitchers to thrive after returning from a second Tommy John operation.

His first surgery was in 2007 when the right-hander was a high school junior. He was drafted by the Dodgers in the 11th round the next year and made his major league debut with them four years later. He was traded to the Miami Marlins, then the New York Yankees.

He underwent his second elbow operation in 2016 and returned to the major leagues with the Tampa Bay Rays two years later. Similar to Buehler, Eovaldi made his comeback about a month into the season.

“I know he did all of his rehab starts and things like that, but it’s just different when you come back and you’re playing in front of all the Dodger fans and the team’s doing well and you just want to be there and contribute to the team,” Eovaldi said. “A lot of it was getting the timing of all the pitches. You’re trying to relearn all the feels and the grips of everything and just going out and trusting it and going out there and executing.

“As much as we all hate spring training, that process, it’s a good learning curve.”

Eovaldi performed inconsistently in the early stages of his return, as Buehler is now. Eovaldi was traded by the Rays to the Boston Red Sox in the middle of the 2018 season. By the end of the year, he was a postseason hero for the Red Sox, who crushed the Dodgers to win the World Series.

“I feel like the more starts you get under your belt, the smoother you get,” Eovaldi said. “Each outing, you’re going to get better and better, [whether] you have good ones or bad ones. If you can learn from the bad ones, I think that’s even more important.”

Buehler swore he would.

“I’ve thrown big games here,” he said. “I want to throw big games here. I’m not used to being the one that’s far behind and that’s kind of the reality of it. I’m doing everything I can to figure it out.”

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