When a franchise has been around long enough, and becomes victorious enough, its time line is bound to include games that placed its youngest players in the highest of pressure cooker situations. That occurred once again in Game 7 of the NLCS when the Dodgers sent 24 year-old Walker Buehler to the mound with their World Series hopes in the basket of his pitcher’s glove.
The last time Buehler faced the Brewers was Game 3, and he wasn’t exactly stellar in that outing. He opened his night by walking Christian Yelich and promptly giving up a double to Ryan Braun, putting the Dodgers behind 1-0 in the first inning. Buehler settled down until the sixth, when he gave up a two-out triple to Travis Shaw, who later scored on a wild pitch that got past Yasmani Grandal. Those runs, combined with his previous starts, brought the young, would-be ace to a postseason record of 0-1, with a 6.75 ERA. For a team that allows statistics to drive its mind-set as much as the Dodgers, those numbers had to be cause for concern as their young pitcher approached the mound with all the marbles on the line.
Back in 1955, the then-Brooklyn Dodgers were battling to overcome their “Bums” label, and win their first World Series championship. Johnny Podres, on his 23rd birthday, had already pitched a complete game victory in Game 3 against the Yankees, when manager Walter Alston handed him the ball for the biggest start of anyone’s pitching career, the Big Kahuna, Game 7 of the World Series. .
He did not disappoint. Podres tossed another complete game, a brilliant 2-0 shutout to slay the mighty Yankees and win the Brooklyn club’s only championship.
26 years later, another Dodgers rookie, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year Award winner, Fernando Valenzuela, all of 20 years-old, held the Dodgers’ championship hopes in Game 5, the finale of the 1981 NLCS. Fernando gave up a run in the first, when Montreal Expo legend, Tim Raines, hit a double and later scored. Montreal wouldn’t plate another runner, as Fernando shut the door on the Expos for the next 7 and 2/3 innings. Bob Welch notched the final out and picked up the save. The Dodgers took the series because earlier, in the top of the ninth, Rick Monday blasted one of the franchise’s most storied postseason home runs, placing the Dodgers on top 2-1. The Boys in Blue later went on to win the 1981 World Series – again besting the New York Yankees.
Fast forward 37 years. This time it was 24 year-old rookie Buehler’s turn to face the postseason heat – Game 7, winner take all, against the formidable Milwaukee Brewers. Buehler’s night began much like his last start, coughing up an early run. The Brewers scored in the first inning, behind a solo home run from Christian Yelich. The Dodgers Groaning and Chowder Society revved their engines, but Buehler quickly settled in and shut down the Brewers over the next 4 2/3 innings.
Buehler survived giving up two singles in the second with a ground out to end the inning. He then induced a double play in the third, and struck out Ryan Braun to close that frame. Milwaukee struck again in the fourth with a lead off double. The Brewers were sure bending Buehler, but he would not break. He mowed down the next three batters, striking out two. Young Buehler began the fifth inning with two more Ks, but he was lifted when Lorenzo Cain ripped a double off him. He finished his night giving up just one run, with six hits, no walks, and seven punch outs.
The young king didn’t pick up the win, but he left with a 2-1 lead, after driving the Dodgers halfway to the Fall Classic. Podres and Valenzuela were winners in their big games, and in my book, Walker Buehler came away a winner as well.