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Walker Buehler shows some rust but overcomes it in his Dodgers return

Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler delivers during the first inning of a 6-3 win over the Miami Marlins.
Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler delivers during the first inning of a 6-3 win over the Miami Marlins on Monday at Dodger Stadium.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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It took all of seven pitches for Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler to exceed the expectations of manager Dave Roberts, who prefaced Buehler’s first major league start in 23 months Monday night by saying, “I don’t expect to see the 96-97 mph that he had before [Tommy John] surgery.”

After completing his warmup pitches with Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade” blaring on the Dodger Stadium public-address system, Buehler went into his windup with the signature high leg-kick and fired his first pitch, a 96-mph fastball, by Miami leadoff hitter Jazz Chisholm Jr. for strike one.

Buehler hit 97 mph with his seventh pitch of the game, a fastball that Chisholm fouled off, and just for good measure, Buehler touched 97.6 mph with his eighth pitch, which was also fouled off by Chisholm.

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Walker Buehler will complete a 23-month comeback Monday when he faces the Miami Marlins knowing he might not be the same pitcher as in the past.

May 6, 2024

“It made sense with how amped up I was and how fast my heart was going,” said Buehler, whose fastball sat at 93-94 mph in six minor league rehabilitation starts. “You think about 22 months and now [two elbow] surgeries … the first fastball was 96, I looked up and said, ‘OK.’ You kind of get that ‘I-belong-here-again’ thing. It was cool.”

Buehler’s return from a nearly two-year absence was a bit of a mixed bag, with Buehler getting tagged for three runs and five hits in the first two innings before blanking the Marlins in the third and fourth, but there was plenty from Buehler for the Dodger to be encouraged about during a 6-3 victory over the Marlins.

Buehler needed 49 pitches to complete the first two innings, in which he gave up RBI singles to Bryan De La Cruz and Jesus Sanchez in the first and Nick Gordon’s solo home run — which a leaping right fielder Andy Pages got his glove on before it bounced over the wall — in the second.

Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler shows his frustration early on against the Miami Marlins on Monday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

But he struck out two of four batters in a scoreless third, Jake Burger looking at a 92-mph sinker and Josh Bell swinging at a 92-mph cut-fastball, and he whiffed Gordon with an 80-mph curve and got Nick Fortes to ground into a double play in a scoreless fourth, needing 28 pitches to complete his last two innings.

That finished a four-inning, 77-pitch start in which Buehler gave up three runs and six hits, struck out four and walked none before yielding to left-hander Ryan Yarbrough, who gave up one hit and struck out two in three scoreless relief innings to earn the win.

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Blake Treinen, pitching for the second time in two days after being activated Sunday, retired the side in order with a strikeout in the eighth, and left-hander Alex Vesia retired the side in order in the ninth for the save.

“I know Walker fed off the emotion of the fans — maybe a little bit too much,” Roberts said. “There were some 98s there in the first inning, and I didn’t expect to see that velocity.

“But I think a lot of that was adrenaline. I felt the last two innings were his best as far as commanding the baseball, the stuff, the efficiency of outs, but overall, it’s a huge win for all of us, and to get him back pitching, I couldn’t be more elated.”

Buehler received a huge ovation from a crowd of 44,970 as he walked from the bullpen to the dugout before the game, describing it as “one of the cooler moments of my career, just the wave of people,” and the crowd roared again before he threw his first pitch to Chisholm, who stepped out of the box to give Buehler time to take it in.

Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler, left, gestures with Clayton Kershaw.
Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler, left, gestures with Clayton Kershaw before pitching in his first game back from Tommy John surgery on Monday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Then, in the words of Roberts, Buehler was “letting it rip,” rearing back and throwing the kind of heat that made him the team’s ace when he led the Dodgers to a World Series title in 2020 and went 16-4 with a 2.47 ERA in 33 starts in 2021, striking out 212 and walking 52 in 207 ? innings.

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“I kind of tired myself out and then settled in for a couple innings,” Buehler said. “I think the ceremony of that one is done. Now I can kind of focus on trying to be good and helping our team. I wish I would have thrown five or six shutout innings or whatever, but it’s done, and I’m happy to be back.”

Buehler’s fastball dropped to 94-95 mph in the third and fourth innings, but he threw more breaking balls for strikes and commanded his secondary pitches better.

“I’m sure he’s gonna wake up [Tuesday] feeling like he got in a car accident — his whole body is gonna be sore — but that’s a good thing,” Roberts said. “I really do believe this is the floor and it’s only going to get better as far as the execution, the ability to go deeper in games and things like that as he gets his legs under him.”

The first four hits of the game were home runs for the Dodgers, who won for the 12th time in 14 games and have outscored opponents 89-28 and hit 25 homers during that stretch.

Los Angeles, CA, Monday, May 6, 2024 - Dodger designated hitter Shohei Ohtani celebrates.
Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani celebrates in the dugout after hitting a two-run home run in the first inning Monday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Shohei Ohtani followed Mookie Betts’ leadoff walk in the bottom of the first with a two-run shot that traveled 441 feet to center field, his major league-leading 11th homer of the season, and Freddie Freeman followed with a solo shot to center to give the Dodgers a 3-2 lead.

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Struggling center fielder James Outman, who entered with a .165 average, .559 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and was mired in a three-for-28 slump, hit a two-run shot that traveled 437 feet to right-center for a 5-3 lead in the second, and Teoscar Hernández’s solo shot to left made it 6-3 in the third.

Ohtani, who was selected National League player of the week earlier Monday, also singled in the fourth inning, stole two bases and is batting .389 (21 for 54) with seven homers and 16 RBIs in his last 13 games.

Buehler had not pitched in a big league game since June 10, 2022, when he felt his elbow “grab a little bit” in the third inning against the San Francisco Giants at Oracle Park. He pitched through discomfort in the fourth inning but was unable to start the fifth.

An MRI test confirmed another ulnar collateral ligament tear, and Buehler, who had Tommy John surgery in 2015, the year the Dodgers drafted him in the first round out of Vanderbilt, underwent his second ligament-replacement procedure.

So began a nearly two-year grind that included a year of physical rehabilitation, an aborted comeback attempt last September, a delayed start to spring training, a lengthy throwing progression and a six-outing minor league rehab stint that culminated with Buehler climbing the Dodger Stadium mound Monday night.

“It gets to be monotonous — you know, the same boring routine, not competing, and pitching in games that really don’t matter,” Roberts said before the game. “For a veteran guy, it gets hard and taxing on the mind.

“But for Walker to still stay focused on getting ready and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and now we’re here … I’m just really proud of him for navigating the emotions. It’s hard, especially going through the second one.”

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