Buehler's remarkable start in Dodgers' Game 3 win puts pressure on Rays

Walker Buehler struck out 10 batters for the Dodgers as they beat the Rays to take a 2-1 lead in the World Series.

Walker Buehler shoved, Charlie Morton suffered a rare post-season misstep and the Los Angeles Dodgers had their bats going as they motored to a 6-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night.

With the win, the Dodgers take a 2-1 lead in the World Series and shift the pressure squarely on the Rays' shoulders heading into Game 4. But before we get there, let’s look back at some takeaways from a commanding Dodgers victory.

Dominant

Buehler’s had a bit of a spotty post-season, battling his command at times and blisters at others. His results have been perfectly fine, with only four runs allowed over four outings. But anyone who’s been watching closely knows he hasn’t pitched as efficiently as he could’ve, walking 11 over those four starts and completing just four innings in two of them.

But you know Buehler’s on when he’s beating guys with high-90s fastballs:

Locating his curveball back door for strikes:

And getting awkward, off-balance swings like this:

And this:

We could really just display nothing but Buehler GIFs here, because the Dodgers right-hander was featuring truly devastating stuff Friday. He was flawless through his first two innings, going six up, six down on only 22 pitches while striking out four. He walked Kevin Kiermaier in the third, but quickly erased him with a double play, ensuring he’d face the minimum entering the fourth.

It was right back to automatic outs from there, as Buehler retired his next four consecutively to carry him through one out in the fifth. That’s when he faced trouble for the first time, as Manuel Margot shot a well-located, full-count fastball into left for a double, the first hit Buehler allowed on the night.

Buehler rallied to strike out Joey Wendle with a nasty curveball at the end of a long battle, but then he made one of his few mistakes on the night, leaving an 0-2 slider a little too far up to Willy Adames, who put the Rays on the board:

But that was all they’d get off him as Buehler completed six innings, allowing only that run on three hits and walk, striking out 10. He threw 67 of his 93 pitches for strikes, a ridiculous 18 of them swinging. His pitch chart demonstrates how effective Buehler’s stuff can allow him to be with a relatively simple game plan featuring fastballs up, curveballs to either side of the plate and sliders either down-and-away from righties or at the back feet of lefties:

That’s about as good as it gets and when you have a bullpen like the Dodgers do, six innings on 93 pitches is all you need. Buehler’s now lined up to start a potential Game 7 of this series on Wednesday, and the Dodgers have to feel pretty good about that should the situation materialize.

An unlikely outcome

Friday, the Rays turned to Charlie Morton, a veteran stater who’s defied the traditional athlete’s trajectory and gotten better with age. Since 2017 — his age-33 season — Morton has a 3.94 ERA over 97 starts with strong peripherals of 10.6 K/9, 3.0 BB/9 and 0.8 HR/9.

But the 37-year-old has done his best work in the post-season, pitching to a 2.81 ERA over 11 playoff outings in that span. He’s shoved in must-win games, he’s closed out a World Series clincher and he’s excelled in Game 7s, like last week in the ALCS against the Houston Astros.

Which is just one of the things that made his struggles Friday so curious. The other is how the trouble came out of nowhere. After two swift outs in the first, Morton quickly got ahead of Justin Turner, 1-2. But then he left a fastball up, right over the heart of the plate. And bad things tend to happen when you do that:

In the third, Morton again got two quick outs, both via strikeout on only nine pitches. But then he clipped Corey Seager’s foot with a splitter and got burned by Turner with two strikes again, as the Dodgers third baseman lifted a Morton curveball on the plate into left for a double, putting two runners in scoring position.

Max Muncy was next. Morton got to two strikes again. And another pitch was left over the plate:

This is extremely unusual. In two-strike counts this season, Morton held hitters to a .170/.207/.284 line. He gave up only six extra-base hits in 92 plate appearances that went to two strikes. Of the 53 batters he faced with two out in an inning, only three came away with extra-base hits. Friday night he was tagged for two through three innings.

But credit Dodgers hitters for a typically elite approach. Morton’s as good as he is because he doesn’t leave many pitches in hittable locations — especially when he’s ahead in the count. When he makes his rare mistakes, it’s imperative that you capitalize on them. And the Dodgers did just that.

Adding on

While the early damage was done with two-strikes, the Dodgers weren’t waiting around against Morton in the fourth. Cody Bellinger led off with a line-drive single to right that beat the four-man outfield the Rays deployed against him. And after Chris Taylor struck out on three pitches, Joc Pederson sent a first-pitch curveball up the line, pushing Bellinger to third and putting the Dodgers back in business.

No. 9 hitter Austin Barnes was next, in the lineup not because his OPS is off the charts but due to his rapport with Buehler. You won’t see the Dodgers sacrifice bunt often. But with Barnes at the plate, it made plenty of sense:

After all, the Dodgers had baseball’s second-best player coming up next in Mookie Betts. And he became the latest hitter to get to Morton with two strikes, rifling a full-count sinker back up the middle to cash another.

Morton’s five runs allowed were one more than he’d given up in his last five playoff starts combined. The seven hits he surrendered were tied for his most in a game since August 10, 2019 — a span of 22 outings. This isn’t how it’s usually gone. And if this series goes seven, the Rays will have to hope Friday was merely a glitch in Morton’s matrix.

Managing for tomorrow

Despite Morton’s struggles, Rays manager Kevin Cash needed as much length from his starter as possible with a bullpen day on tap Saturday. So he sent him back out for the fifth with five runs already in. But after Morton issued Muncy a one-out walk, Cash had seen enough.

From there, it was crucial that Cash got efficient, effective relief. You never know how many arms you’ll need on a bullpen day and it’s possible Sunday’s Game 5 could be an elimination game. The Rays needed to preserve as many bullets as possible.

John Curtiss was first out of the bullpen and did a serous solid for his manager, getting the Rays out of the fifth with only eight pitches. And he started the sixth similarly, retiring the first two batters on seven. But then he hung an 0-2 slider to Barnes, who doesn’t hit many homers but wasn’t missing that cookie:

As an aside: it really is unfair that a lineup as deep as the Dodgers gets a bomb like that from Barnes out of the nine-hole. He has three home runs in 348 MLB games. He entered the night a .194/.262/.247 career playoff hitter with exactly one home run in 103 post-season plate appearances. He’s in the game for his defence. But the Dodgers continue to be a cheat code.

Anyway, Curtiss then turned things over to Ryan Sherriff, who had yet to pitch in the post-season. And Sherriff gave way to Ryan Thompson, who hadn’t pitched since Game 3 of the ALCS. Thompson then passed the baton to Shane McClanahan, who made his MLB debut two-and-a-half weeks ago and has pitched only three times in these playoffs.

That usage tells you all you need to know about how Cash was managing the end of this one. It had more to do with tomorrow than today. The gambit he ran was that it’d be better to have a full stable of high leverage arms in Games 4 and 5 rather than marginally increasing his team’s dwindling odds of a comeback in Game 3.

Cash got what he was after. And now the pressure’s on him and his pitching staff in Saturday’s Game 4, as the Rays try to navigate their way through 27 outs in a series of short stints, while producing enough offence to avoid a 3-1 deficit.

Odds and ends

Randy Arozarena made history in the ninth with a solo shot off Kenley Jansen, tying an MLB record for the most homers — eight — in a single post-season:

Justin Turner made a ridiculous snag on a Mike Zunino grounder in the third, starting an inning-ending double play. It was impressive enough at full speed, but the super slow-motion replay demonstrates just how tricky the ball was to track:

Ji-Man Choi’s six-foot-one, 260-pounds and can do the splits. What’s your excuse?

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