LOS ANGELES – For the last month, Walker Buehler took the ball every sixth day, reminding his team and his fans and his opponents the value of spring training.
Buehler didn’t tax his golden right arm with any competitive pitches between March 12, the day spring training was postponed, and July 1, when the Dodgers players reported to “summer camp.” It wasn’t until Friday, about one month into the regular season, that he resembled the potential ace of a team with World Series aspirations.
Buehler took a no-hitter into the fourth inning of the Dodgers’ 5-1 win over the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium. He finished with 11 strikeouts over six innings, and won his first game since the opener of last year’s National League Division Series.
“I just felt better, more confident, locked in,” Buehler said. “All those cliché terms.”
Buehler retired the first 11 Rockies hitters in order before Charlie Blackmon singled, momentarily lifting his league-leading batting average to .426. Colorado didn’t get a runner past second base until the sixth inning, when three straight singles led to the only run on Buehler’s ledger.
Before that rally, Manager Dave Roberts had visions of extending Buehler into the seventh inning.
Buehler still got plenty out of his 92 pitches, a season-high. He didn’t walk a batter after struggling with his command in four no-decisions to start the season. Buehler began the day with a 5.21 earned-run average, which would have ranked second-to-last in the National League if he had thrown enough innings to qualify. It’s down to 4.32 now.
The only NL starter with a higher ERA? His opponent Friday, Rockies starter Jon Gray (1-3), who allowed four runs in just 3 2/3 innings.
Despite his struggles, Buehler did not lack for speed. His fastball touched 99 mph in his last start Saturday against the Angels. But the final pieces of his arsenal, his slider and curveball, had yet to come around until Friday.
“Both of them, I think, have been behind,” Buehler said. “I haven’t had that choose-what-I-want-to-do-with-it kind of feeling. I had that tonight. Being able to change speeds, since most of what I throw is around the same velo.”
The Dodgers improved to 20-8, four games ahead of the San Diego Padres in the National League West.
Gray allowed hits to seven of the nine Dodger starters. An RBI double by Cody Bellinger (2 for 3) handed Buehler a 1-0 lead in the first inning. An RBI single by Matt Beaty made it 2-0 in the third inning. Corey Seager drove in two more runs later in the third with a double, forcing the Rockies into their bullpen early.
The Dodgers collected 10 hits as a team, including five doubles, on a rare day off for Mookie Betts.
Betts was replaced in right field by Pederson, who entered the weekend series with two hits and no walks in his previous five starts. Roberts, undeterred, inserted Pederson at the top of his lineup.
“Joc’s always been streaky. I’m not concerned about Joc,” Roberts said in his afternoon media call. “The other day he put a great swing on the ball. The other night, I thought he put three great swings on the baseball. I think he’ll come out of it soon.”
Pederson reached base in each of his first two plate appearances, on a double and a hit by pitch. He was replaced by pinch hitter Kiké Hernandez in the sixth inning.
Adam Kolarek, Caleb Ferguson and Kenley Jansen each pitched a scoreless inning of relief for the Dodgers. Kolarek hasn’t allowed a run in eight appearances this season.
While most of the Dodgers’ pitchers found their midseason form quickly, Roberts had to take a patient approach with Buheler. Between Buehler’s supreme confidence and his elite pitching arsenal, the manager had no reason to worry the 25-year-old pitcher would come around eventually.
“Absolutely not,” Roberts said.
Watching Clayton Kershaw might have expedited Buehler’s arrival.
Thursday, Kershaw threw seven innings, allowed one run, and struck out 11 batters in a dominant win over the Mariners. His 96 pitches were the most any Dodgers starter has thrown in the abbreviated season. Perceptually at least, the game shifted the balance of power between the future Hall of Famer Kershaw and Buehler, his heir apparent.
Friday, Buehler said, “I was kind of tired of being (lousy).”
“Any game that (Kershaw) pitches, there’s stuff that all of us that are younger can pick up on,” Buehler said. “His aggressiveness, to own the count, to throw whatever he wants at any time – I don’t know if it’s necessarily watching him do it. He’s proven he’s one of the best ever. Reminding yourself, oh, that’s how it’s supposed to be done, is a big thing. I did more of that tonight.”