SAN FRANCISCO – Walker Buehler is a wisp of a 24-year-old. He is a Kentucky native and Vandy guy and proud of it. His big-league body of work is 22 starts, a recent handful of which has brought more than one scout to offer, quietly, into a breeze of heresy, “He’s their best pitcher.” On Sunday afternoon, in narrow black jeans under a pressed, untucked dress shirt, he became what is known as Next Up, his turn having been arranged and rearranged to come around in a game that will at the very least establish what October might bring.
The Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander, the rookie, will pitch Monday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, game No. 163 if you’re counting, for the Dodgers’ sixth consecutive National League West title.
“It’d be huge,” Buehler said Sunday afternoon. “That’s the goal. It’s been a long time since we set that goal to now.”
German Márquez is a 23-year-old from San Felix, Venezuela, a right-hander you might know better had so many of his starts not come at altitude, had Kyle Freeland not just become the best pitcher in franchise history. Like Buehler, Márquez stood/sat/paced/rested in a dugout Sunday afternoon, a few states to the right of Buehler, reasonably sure the afternoon was leading him into the start that could result in the Colorado Rockies’ first division title. Ever.
“One of the best pitchers in the National League,” Rockies manager Bud Black reminded reporters Sunday in Denver, speaking of Márquez, who twice beat the Dodgers this season, twice at Dodger Stadium.
This is what comes of a tense morning in baseball cities across the country. By evening, two teams jetting to Los Angeles, both carrying aspirations for more, both carrying a plan, both granting the responsibility for what comes next to among their youngest, to among their strongest, to among their most certain.
“There’s guys that want to be in this spot and this moment,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “And there’s guys that want to run from it. Walker’s a guy that we know wants to be in this moment.”
The same will be said of Márquez. And a division that wouldn’t sort itself over six months will require six months and a day. Winner will host a division series against the Atlanta Braves. Loser to the Midwest for a win-or-out game in Milwaukee or Chicago on Tuesday.
What they love about Buehler is his confidence. Well, first, his ability to pitch, with ace-like stuff and ferocity. Then, his confidence. He is sure he will be – is – good at this. And while that plays, so does understanding one’s place, and teammates appreciated that Buehler, a rookie, went along with a second year of rookie dress-up hootenanny without so much as a raised eyebrow. It doesn’t seem like much. It is. It conveys to veterans that a puffed chest comes with humility, with an understanding that a place among them is earned.
So he grinned a little and said, “At the end of the day, it’s another baseball game.”
The end of a very long day.
In the NL West, the afternoon had begun at 12:06 p.m. PT, then at 1:12 p.m. MT, as though the Dodgers had been granted first move. The first swing. Also, in Denver, it allowed Max Scherzer to find a warm and comfortable place to take it all in.
So, as Rockies lefty Tyler Anderson warmed on a mound in Denver, Chris Taylor was scoring from first base on a Justin Turner double in San Francisco, and as Rockies infielders limbered their arms, Turner was scoring on a David Freese single. Dodgers, 2-0.
Then, as Matt Kemp shuffled to the batter’s box to begin the Dodgers’ second inning, as Giants starter Andrew Suárez recovered from an imprecise first inning and roared toward more of the same, Rockies cleanup hitter Nolan Arenado was ripping a hanging slider into the Coors Field bleachers against not Max Scherzer. The afternoon was 30 minutes in, the score was Dodgers 2, Rockies 2, Giants 0, Nationals 0 in a game played at a distance of 1,300 miles, in a game played squarely in the heads and hearts of the players, in a game played on panels landing with a clunk on out-of-town scoreboards.
In between Anderson’s stuttery deliveries, a television camera at Coors Field narrowed to the bright yellow number having appeared beside the game further west, and then that number was a 4, and the crowd had barely finished its groan when that number was a 6, and then a 7. And as Charlie Blackmon was pulling a ball deep to right field, a very good sign, that ball had barely reached its apex when Brian Dozier in San Francisco was pulling a ball to deep left field, and Blackmon’s ball landed in the Coors Field bleachers, and Dozier’s ball cleared the AT&T Park fence.
That yellow number on the out-of-town scoreboard was a 9, ridiculously a freakin’ 9. The Dodgers were hammering the rookie left-hander by the bay. The Rockies were doing something similar, if not quite so thoroughly, to rookie right-hander Erick Fedde in the altitude. Not an hour had gone by, and already the best they could hope for in Denver was to enjoy a 4-0 lead, and then a 12-0 win, then a long bus ride and an evening flight to L.A., a quick night’s sleep and a ballgame in the early afternoon at Dodger Stadium, where two weeks ago the Rockies had lost three of three. And the best they could hope for in the first-base dugout here, following a 15-0 win, was a shorter bus ride, a shorter flight, a longer night and a ballgame in the early afternoon at Dodger Stadium.
The tumult over who would pitch for the Dodgers on Sunday, be it veteran Rich Hill or the rookie Buehler, was forgotten. Hill was perfect against the helpless Giants for 3 1/3 innings and allowed two hits over seven innings. Buehler beat the Rockies 11 days ago, when he struck them out 12 times in six innings. The late Saturday night news that someone other than Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young Award winner and Roberts’ very choice to start the last All-Star Game, would pitch against the Rockies might have led to grumbling in the bleachers. The Dodgers themselves shrugged.
While they would play for the division title to the season’s final day, then for another day after that, the Dodgers remained self-aware. They should have won more than 91 games. They should have finished off the division when they led by 2½ games with a week-and-a-half remaining. They should not have lost a series to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the time since. So that a general manager from Washington would make a decision that might have harmed their outcome, the notion that someone else would be responsible for their added hardship, the Dodgers knew better. Or should have, if they didn’t.
So they hand the ball to Buehler and they are in charge again. And the Rockies hand the ball to Márquez, and they are every bit as capable as the Dodgers. They’ll play a game Buehler compared to those he pitched in his NCAA regional days, where, he said, “It’s kinda like win or go home but not really.”
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