Walker Buehler didn’t unleash the adrenaline pulsing through his slim frame until the job was done. He waited until after he calmly pumped fastballs past flailing, overwhelmed Atlanta Braves hitters , and until after he induced a ground ball for the third out of the second inning of Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.
Then, finally, did he show emotion. He pounded his blue glove. “Let’s go!” he roared on his walk to the Dodgers’ dugout. The Braves had loaded the bases with no outs and emerged empty-handed, a failure that changed the course of the Dodgers’ 3-1, season-saving win.
“It’s all about your heartbeat, man,” Buehler said.
Buehler went on to deliver six scoreless innings as the Dodgers won their second straight game in front of limited attendance of 10,772 at Globe Life Field to force a Game 7 on Sunday.
“I’m still sort of recovering from this one, but I’m already thinking about Game 7,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “That’s what you live for.”
Roberts said the team hadn’t decided on a pitching plan for Sunday. Tony Gonsolin, the Dodgers’ Game 2 starter, could be used as a conventional starter or come out of the bullpen to throw several innings. In that scenario, the Dodgers probably would use a reliever or Julio Urías to open the game.
To get there, Buehler once again delivered when the stakes were highest. The right-hander worked around seven hits. He issued five walks in his first two playoff starts, including a career-high five in Game 1 of the NLCS, but he didn’t walk a batter Saturday. The Braves’ only run came in the seventh inning when Blake Treinen replaced Buehler after he threw 89 pitches.
“Walker emptied the tank,” Roberts said. “He was gassed.”
It was the first time Buehler completed six innings since Aug. 21, when the blisters on his index and middle fingers that have hindered him for nearly two months first emerged. The television broadcast Saturday said Buehler had been using Stan’s Rodeo Rub, an ointment concocted by a former Dodgers trainer, to treat the blisters.
“I may or may not be,” Buehler said with a grin.
Buehler was backed by efforts from fellow stars on the Dodgers’ loaded roster.
Corey Seager, the hottest hitter in the postseason, and Justin Turner pounced on Braves left-hander Max Fried with back-to-back home runs in the first inning. Cody Bellinger delivered an RBI single later in the inning to give the Dodgers a three-run lead and all the offense required.
Then there was, as there always seems to be, Mookie Betts. In Game 5, Betts went low to snag a sinking line drive to begin an unlikely double play and end an inning. The play sparked a comeback victory. In Game 6, he went high, crashing into the wall in the fifth inning to rob Marcell Ozuna of extra bases and the Braves from a second run.
Key plays from the Dodgers’ 3-1 win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 of the NLCS.
And in the ninth, Kenley Jansen, pitching for the second straight day, was back where he’s been so often for the Dodgers in October for the last eight years: on the mound in a save situation. Jansen’s three NLCS appearances tell the story of his uneven postseason.
Jansen unofficially lost his job as closer after nearly blowing a save in Game 2 of the NL Division Series against the San Diego Padres. His next outing came in Game 3 of the NLCS, in the sixth inning with the Dodgers leading 15-1. He was elevated to a tighter spot in Game 5 — the ninth inning with a four-run lead — and struck out the side on 12 pitches. It was his best performance in weeks.
On Saturday, he was called on to protect the two-run lead — and the Dodgers’ season from extinction. He retired the side in order on six pitches with help from a diving catch by Joc Pederson in left field.
“To continue to stay focused and be ready when called upon, the game is honoring him,” Roberts said. “Couldn’t be happier and more proud of him.”
Kiké Hernández, the Dodgers’ starting second basemann in Game 6, is in his sixth season with the team. Never, he said, had he seen the team as energetic for a day game as it was Saturday morning. There was screaming. There was music. There was dancing, he reported, mostly from him. Coffee, and nothing more, caffeinated the vigor.
“Not a lot of Red Bulls first,” Hernández said. “I think it’s the healthy choice to eat breakfast before your first Red Bull of the day.”
The energy spilled into the first inning.
Atlanta had a reliever warming in the bullpen, but Fried escaped and righted the ship. The Harvard-Westlake High graduate held the Dodgers scoreless over the next 5 2/3 innings before his departure. He surrendered eight hits, walked four, and struck out five.
Buehler was better. And he was at his best when he needed to be in the second inning.
The Braves hit three consecutive singles to load the bases. The bottom third of Atlanta’s lineup was next. In response, Buehler vaulted to another level.
The right-hander fired three fastballs by Austin Riley for a strikeout. Then he fired six more to Nick Markakis. The sixth traveled 100 mph and caught Markakis looking for strike three. Cristian Pache, a rookie barely old enough to buy beer, stood between Buehler and freedom. Before the duel, catcher Austin Barnes visited Buehler to solidify a plan.
“Barnes steered me through it,” Buehler said. “That’s all there really is to it. We made the pitches we needed to and got out of it. But the way he was able to guide me through that inning was about as good as I’ve ever seen.”
Buehler fired a 99-mph fastball for strike one, but he then went with a cutter — his first non-four-seamer since loading the bases — that Pache fouled off. Then Pache fouled back a fastball. Finally, Pache hit a slider to the shortstop Seager, who made a backhanded stop and threw out Pache to end the threat.
“His mound presence is just unbelievable,” Turner said. “He just continues to pitch big game after big game for us.”
The sequence fueled the latest entry on Buehler’s growing list of successful big-game performances. He hass started three elimination games, a division-deciding Game 163 and a World Series game in his career. In those five starts, he’s given up two runs in 31 innings with 30 strikeouts and six walks.
On Saturday, he kept his cool and helped keep the Dodgers’ World Series hopes afloat.
“The great ones make great pitches,” Roberts said, “and big pitches in big spots.”