John Clay

Facing elimination, the Dodgers trust the ball to the kid from Henry Clay

At 8:37 p.m. ET Wednesday, the eyes of the baseball world, if not the entire sports world, will be on the 25-year-old right-handed pitcher from Lexington, Ky.

That would be the one and only Walker Buehler, who will take the mound to start winner-take-all Game 5 of the National League Division Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers against Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals. The winner advances to the NL Championship Series. The loser heads home.

It’s a powerhouse pitching matchup, that’s for sure. Buehler went 14-4 this season for the Dodgers with a 3.26 ERA. He struck out 215 over 182 1/3 innings. His WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) was a meager 1.04. The 31-year-old Strasburg went 18-6 this season for the Nationals with a 3.32 ERA. He struck out 251 over 209 innings. His WHIP was also a meager 1.04 ERA.

“Walker Buehler versus Stephen Strasburg with (the Dodgers’ Clayton) Kershaw probably available in the pen,” said Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman after the Nationals beat the Dodgers in Game 4. “I mean, this is why you play the game.”

Strasburg is on an undeniable roll. The NLDS Game 2 starter in Los Angeles, Strasburg allowed one run in six innings while striking out 10 as the the Nationals evened the series 1-1 with a 4-2 victory. Before that, he pitched three scoreless innings in Washington’s 4-3 win over Milwaukee in the NL Wild Card game. Over nine postseason innings this season, the San Diego native has allowed just five hits with no walks and 14 strikeouts.

But there’s also this quote from L.A. rookie second baseman Gavin Lux about Buehler: “He’s the most confident human being on the planet.”

Skill and confidence have taken the former Henry Clay High School and Vanderbilt star a long way. It’s not bragging if you back it up, after all. And known to be outspoken about both his talent and his accomplishments, Buehler has pitched his way past the 31-year-old Kershaw, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, as the Dodgers’ premiere pitcher in just two full seasons.

Just look at Buehler’s postseason performances. He has not allowed a run in his last 17 1/3 postseason innings, dating back to a first-inning homer by Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich in Game 7 of last season’s NL Championship Series. That includes Game 1 of this year’s NLDS in which Buehler, pitching to his battery mate in former University of Louisville catcher Will Smith, allowed one hit over six scoreless innings in Los Angeles’ 6-0 win.

Actually, backtrack to Game 163 on the 2018 campaign when the Dodgers played Colorado in a one-game playoff for the NL West title. Buehler got the ball and allowed just one hit and no runs over 6 2/3 innings. The Dodgers won 5-2.

Then in that do-or-die 2018 NLCS matchup with the Brewers, Buehler again got the start and, after Yelich’s dinger, did not allow another run over 4 2/3 innings. He struck out seven without walking a batter. The Dodgers won 5-1 to reach their second straight World Series.

There, Buehler started Game 3 against Boston and became just the third MLB pitcher, following Don Larsen and Roger Clemens, to pitch at least seven scoreless innings (seven exactly) while allowing two or fewer hits (two) without walking a batter and striking out at least seven. The Dodgers won the game 3-2, their only win in a series that lasted just five games.

Now here they are again. After a sterling 106-win regular season, the Dodgers are on the brink of elimination against a team that was 19-31 through the season’s first 50 games but rebounded to win 93 (without Bryce Harper). They’re facing a potential Hall of Fame pitcher in the midst of arguably the best season of Strasburg’s 10-year career.

And L.A. is trusting the ball to the kid from Henry Clay.

Wednesday

Nationals at Dodgers

8:37 p.m. (TBS); series tied 2-2

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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