The announcement surfaced at 11:40 a.m. Tuesday: Walker Buehler would start Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants on three days’ rest for the first time in his major-league career.
It was the obvious choice with the Dodgers on the brink of elimination. And yet it wasn’t a given for an organization that handles pitchers with deliberate caution, assessing risk at every turn down to the most minuscule details.
Another relatively out-of-character move arose a few hours later: Gavin Lux would start in center field. Lux has been an outfielder for all of five weeks. The last time the former top prospect was seen in center field, he was crashing face first into the wall during the season’s final week. He is still learning the basics and manager Dave Roberts had indicated Lux wouldn’t start in the outfield in the playoffs.
But the Dodgers craved more offense after getting shut out twice in four playoff games without Max Muncy available, and Lux supplied another dangerous offensive talent. The possible reward was too great. Desperation surmounted the gamble.
The two calculations summarized the Dodgers’ state of mind Tuesday. It was time to put the best talent on the field to beat the rival Giants. Their World Series dreams depended on them surviving. In the end, the decisions took center stage in their 7-2 victory at Dodger Stadium, setting up a winner-take-all Game 5 for the fabled foes.
A night after Giants pitching and stiff winds combined to keep them scoreless, the Dodgers awoke from their slumber in more tranquil conditions. Lux went two for two with two walks and a run scored in his seventh start in center field as the Dodgers chased Anthony DeSclafani after 1-2/3 innings, forcing the Giants to use seven relievers to cover the remainder of the game. Mookie Betts hit a two-run home run. Cody Bellinger recorded his first multiple-hit game since Aug. 25. Trea Turner collected two hits.
Buehler didn’t last long, but he held the Giants to one run on three hits over 4-1/3 innings, and the bullpen shut the door to move the series back to Oracle Park for Game 5.
“I physically felt really good,” Buehler said. “We’ll see how that holds tomorrow, but elimination game and having been here a little bit, I wanted the ball.”
First pitch Thursday for the 24th and final game between the 109-win clubs is scheduled for 6:07 p.m. Julio Urías will start for the Dodgers. Logan Webb, who shut down the Dodgers in Game 1, will take the mound for San Francisco.
“This is what baseball wants,” Roberts said. “All the series are done. We’re gonna be the only show in town. If you have a pulse or are a sports fan, you better be watching Dodgers-Giants.”
Buehler’s short-rest effort Tuesday was rooted in Saturday’s Game 2. Urías threw just 72 pitches over five innings in the Dodgers’ win in San Francisco that night. Buehler recognized the relatively light usage meant Urías would be fresh on regular rest for a decisive Game 5. So, after the game, he informed his bosses he wanted to start Game 4.
Buehler had never started on short rest as a major leaguer, and more of his starts this season were on more than four days’ rest (20) than regular rest (13). The Dodgers refused to push him that far in the past. He was a prized young arm. They were afraid to break him with other capable options available. But this year marked a different phase in Buehler’s career. It’s not about saving him for future anymore. Tuesday’s decision punctuated that point.
“As long as I could walk in the clubhouse, I would have told them I could pitch,” Buehler said.
Roberts said the club wouldn’t have chosen Buehler to start the game if they had won Game 3. They’ve could’ve opted to start Tony Gonsolin or deploy a bullpen game. Facing elimination changed the equation. They determined Buehler was the best option to keep their season afloat.
“That’s why aces are aces,” Roberts said. “Because they don’t run from fights.”
This was a brawl between two rivals that had scrapped over the same block all summer. Tuesday was the 23rd meeting between the division foes this season. Buehler has started for the Dodgers in eight of them. The prevailing thought is that level of familiarity tends to benefit hitters. Buehler disrupted that theory Tuesday, but not for too long.
Before the game, Roberts acknowledged Buehler would have a shorter leash than normal. The length of it extended to 13 outs. Roberts pulled the right-hander after he walked pinch-hitter Steven Duggar with his 71st pitch, putting two runners on base. Buehler sauntered off the field to an ovation.
“When our backs are against the wall, we got a guy named Walker Buehler who gets us out of it,” Betts said. “He did it again today.”
Joe Kelly initially stoked the flames by giving up a single to Tommy La Stella to load the bases. Darin Ruf then hit a groundball to second baseman Turner, who traded an out for the Giants’ first run, bringing the left-handed-hitting Brandon Crawford to the plate with two outs.
The situation prompted Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior to surface for a talk with Kelly. Crawford fell behind 0-and-2 and couldn’t dig himself out. He grounded out to third baseman Justin Turner to halt the threat, stranding two runners.
The Dodgers wasted no time in applying pressure on DeSclafani, who hadn’t pitched in 10 days. It took them three batters to seize a lead after Corey Seager singled and Trea Turner flicked a first-pitch slider to right-center field for a double. Seager raced around from first to do what the Dodgers failed to accomplish in nine innings Monday: score.
DeSclafani quickly surrendered another run in the second inning. Lux led off the frame with a single. He went first to third on Bellinger’s single before scoring on Chris Taylor’s sacrifice fly. DeSclafani was pulled after yielding a two-out single to Betts that placed runners on the corners. He got five outs with 28 pitches. Giants manager Gabe Kapler was managing to knock the Dodgers out.
José Álvarez induced the third out without further damage and didn’t take the mound again. Kapler gave the ball to Kervin Castro in the third inning. He proceeded to walk two batters, coaxing Kapler out for another pitching change with one out. Jarlin García started his outing with a seven-pitch walk of Lux before retiring the next two hitters to keep the Dodgers off the board. They led just 2-0, but it felt like a blowout.
The Giants’ fortunes faded in the fourth inning. Buehler, leading off, reached on an error by García.
Two pitches later, Betts whacked a fastball the other way over the wall.
“That was the best swing he’s taken all year,” Roberts said.
The blast ignited possibly the last Dodger Stadium crowd of this year. The Dodgers must win Thursday in San Francisco to play another game at home this season. They did everything they could to get there first.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.