To combat a pesky blister that sent him to the injured list twice in the past month, Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler sought the advice of an expert, Minnesota left-hander and former teammate Rich Hill, whose 3½ years in Los Angeles (2016-2019) were marred by blisters on his pitching fingers.
Hill, 40, would do anything to speed the healing process — he tried laser therapy, drinking apple cider and vinegar and urinating on his hand to harden the skin.
It is unclear if Buehler went to similar extremes, but whatever he and soft-tissue specialist Yosuke “Possum” Nakajima, the Blister Whisperer of the team’s medical staff, did to treat the index finger of Buehler’s pitching hand appeared to help.
Buehler threw four scoreless innings, allowing one hit, striking out six and walking one, and had no visible problems with the blister in Thursday night’s 5-1 win over the Oakland Athletics in Dodger Stadium.
The right-hander threw 65 pitches, 45 for strikes. He was targeted for five innings and 75 pitches but needed 25 pitches to complete the fourth, the last-inning workload likely leading to an earlier hook.
Buehler leaned heavily on a four-seam fastball that averaged 97.2 mph and touched 99 mph, throwing his heater 41 times. He threw 19 knucklecurves, which put more pressure on the fingertips, and five cut-fastballs. He struck out Tommy La Stella, the hardest player to whiff in the major leagues, twice.
“I think Walker talking to Rich has certainly helped,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He’s given him advice on [dealing with] the unknown.”
That’s the thing about blisters. They’re unpredictable. They can seem healed and flare up without warning—not the kind of problem you want your best pitcher to have entering the playoffs.
“I’d like to say it won’t be an issue at all, but tonight will be telling,” Roberts said before the game. “Hopefully, it’s less of a topic of conversation.”
Buehler threw only 7 2/3 innings in the past month before Thursday, his blister first surfacing after an Aug. 21 game against Colorado. His second start back from the IL, on Sept. 8 at Arizona, ended after 2 2/3 innings because of the blister.
Buehler threw a 90-pitch simulated game last Saturday, his finger uncovered for 75 pitches and covered for the final 15 — an effort Roberts hoped he would match against the A’s.
“For me, the main thing is we get out of this with a net positive and make sure he doesn’t take a step backward,” Roberts said, “so when makes his first start of the postseason, he’ll be ready to go.”
Buehler is only 26 and in his third full big-league season, but he’s already established himself as a big-game pitcher, with a 1-1 record and 2.72 ERA in six postseason starts in which he struck out 44 and walked 10 in 36 1/3 innings.
He blanked Washington on one hit over six innings with eight strikeouts in a 6-0 win in Game 1 of the NL Division Series last year and allowed one run and four hits and struck out seven in 6 2/3 innings of a 7-3 Game 5 loss to the Nationals.
Buehler threw seven shutout innings, allowing two hits and striking out seven, in Game 3 of the 2018 World Series against Boston, a 3-2, 18-inning win.
Three-time NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw has enjoyed a resurgent 2020, using an uptick in fastball velocity, his sharp slider and big-bending curve to go 6-2 with a 2.15 ERA in nine starts.
But the 32-year-old left-hander does not possess the high-octane stuff and swagger of Buehler, who can overwhelm hitters.
“You can’t overstate it,” Roberts said of the importance of having a dominant starter for a deep October run. “The value of the top-end guys [are] to take down meaningful innings, to not overtax bullpen, to dominate games, to cover a night of offense that you might not have to still win a baseball game.”
To have two such starters atop a rotation that includes young guns Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin would be a huge boost to the Dodgers’ World Series hopes.
“That one-two punch … it’s almost everything,” Roberts said of Buehler and Kershaw. “When you’re talking about winning a championship, you have to have the guys at the top because it gives everyone else opportunities to be in their best roles.”