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Game 3 win proof Walker Buehler is baseball’s reigning October ace

ARLINGTON, Texas — Just look at the names. Sandy Koufax. Randy Johnson. Clayton Kershaw. Curt Schilling. Orel Hershiser. Madison Bumgarner. Josh Beckett.

Walker Buehler is 26 years old. He is in his third full season in the major leagues. To put him alongside two Hall of Famers, another shoo-in, a likely entrant and three more of the greatest pitchers in baseball playoff history, then, might feel presumptive, a prisoner-of-the-moment reaction to his latest sparkling outing.

Here’s the thing: These are his peers. The numbers say so. And however statistics can be twisted, engineered and leveraged to tell a story, Buehler needs no such manipulation. Right now, he is baseball’s best big-game pitcher, and the gem he spun in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 6-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night at Globe Life Field only enhanced that argument.

Over six innings, Buehler neutralized the Rays with a heavy dose of a four-seam fastball that defies gravity and a curveball that embraces it. He struck out 10, ceded three hits, walked one and yielded one run. Against Buehler, the Rays flailed and failed, and though no solace can be taken from that, not when they now trail two games to one in the series, at least they know they’re not the first.

Consider the first set of names: Schilling, Hershiser, Bumgarner. They’re the only players in history to post a better ERA over a nine-start postseason stretch than Buehler’s current run. Schilling’s was 1.14, Hershiser’s 1.17, Bumgarner’s 1.18. From his start in Game 7 of the 2018 National League Championship Series through Game 3 of this World Series, Buehler’s is 1.28.

“The more you do these things, the calmer you get,” Buehler said. “I don’t want to keep harping on it, but I enjoy doing this. And I feel good in these spots.”

Confidence never is a problem for Buehler. He knows he is good. He’ll talk about how he’s good. It’s extremely matter-of-fact. And these are the facts.

Among pitchers 26 and younger, none have struck out more batters in the postseason than Buehler. He reached 80 on Friday, passing Bumgarner. The extra rounds and games make this more of a modern record than something to compare Buehler historically, but still: He’s better than his contemporaries.

In all 11 of his playoff starts, Buehler has punched out at least six. The previous record holder for consecutive postseason starts with half a dozen or more strikeouts: Johnson, with nine.

Before Game 3, only two Dodgers pitchers had double-digit strikeout games in which they gave up three or fewer hits: Koufax and Kershaw.

The last player as young as Buehler to record at least 10 punchouts in a World Series game: Beckett when he was 23.

Yes, some of these are arbitrary. Had Buehler not struck out the side in the sixth inning, those double-digit factoids wouldn’t exist. And he pitches in a far different era than Schilling, Hershiser and Bumgarner. Their respective innings totals over those nine starts of microscopic ERAs: 71, 69⅓ and 68⅔. Buehler has thrown just 49⅓ innings, a hair under 5½ innings a start, which, even in the heart of the bullpenning era, is nobody’s idea of a workhorse.

The game’s evolution is a culprit, because Buehler could work deeper into games if given the leash to do so. Even during the regular season the Dodgers welded a restrictor plate to Buehler, lest they overexert him and not have him for the moments they need him to win things like their first championship since 1988.

“Obviously there’s been a few games that I kinda wanted to keep going and keep going and keep going,” Buehler said. “But that’s what you want. I think you want an organization that’s gonna help you and hold you back. And I think as a player you want to keep going. No, I think we’ve done a good job with it.”

Until the Dodgers let Buehler work deeper into games, his lack of a classic sort of playoff performance — a shutout or at least a complete game — will be a reasonable ding on his résumé. It’s less the fault of Buehler than the moment in which he pitches, when someone of his ilk is seen as so valuable that any risk is a risk. Particularly for someone with a Tommy John scar on his right elbow.

With that not an option, at least for now, Buehler instead focuses on carving up opposing lineups. The Rays struck out twice in the first, second and fifth innings and three times in the sixth. They swung under Buehler’s fastball, which is unfair at 97 mph with supreme command and even more prone to embarrass because its average spin rate of 2,550 rpm is among the five best of any starter in the big leagues. High-spin-rate fastballs are the pitcher’s version of sleight-of-hand magic, looking to some hitters as if they’re almost rising. The truth is that the speed of the spin simply fights gravity better than lower-speed heaters, meaning they’re still dropping but at a slower rate than the brain can instantaneously process.

Between that and his 3,000-rpm curveball, another elite pitch Buehler controls with the precision of a puppeteer — and don’t forget his slider and cutter, two more power pitches that round out his arsenal — hitters fidget when facing Buehler for good reason. Even though he is more reliant on his fastball than most pitchers, he relies because it’s arguably the best offered by any starting pitcher today. The only others in the conversation are Gerrit Cole — who has the best argument of anyone to dispute Buehler’s big-game throne — and Jacob deGrom, who might someday mount a challenge if the Mets stop Metsing.

“He was unbelievable. He really was,” said Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes, who himself made history by homering and driving in a run via sacrifice bunt, the first player to do both in the same World Series game in nearly 60 years. “He made it really easy on me. That might have been the best I’ve ever seen his stuff really.”

The best. That’s saying something. Buehler showed the capabilities in 2018 when he threw 6⅔ shutout innings against Colorado to clinch the NL West in Game 163. Less than a month later, in the previous World Series Game 3 started by Buehler, he gave up two hits and struck out seven over seven shutout innings. And in his start after that, in Game 1 of the 2019 NL Division Series, he threw six shutout innings and yielded one hit. His first three this postseason were good, his NLCS Game 6 with six shutout innings excellent and Friday’s brilliant. And the Dodgers are in perfect position should they need him again. Worst-case scenario, if they lose Games 4 and 5, Buehler could go on short rest in Game 6. Otherwise, the Dodgers can have him ready and fully rested for Game 7.

“I haven’t put it all together and grasped or wrapped my head around all that he’s accomplished in this short period of time,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Being a big-game pitcher and really succeeding on this stage, there’s only a few guys currently and throughout history. He’s in some really elite company, and I’m just happy he’s wearing a Dodger uniform.”

There is perhaps one statistic that fully encapsulates why Buehler warrants the best-active-big-game-pitcher label. Pitch-tracking technology goes back to 2008, and over the 13 years since it debuted, only two times has a pitcher struck out at least 22 batters on fastballs in a postseason.

This first was Walker Buehler in 2018.

The second is Walker Buehler in 2020.

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