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Walker Buehler delivers best start since returning from surgery, fueling Dodgers’ win

Walker Buehler pitches from the mound.
Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler (21) delivers the ball during a win over the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday at Dodger Stadium.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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This wasn’t quite vintage Walker Buehler, the supremely confident right-hander who could bully his way out of jams with an overpowering fastball and was the Dodgers’ best playoff pitcher from 2019-21, but it was a huge step in that direction.

A bit wobbly in his first two games in his return from a second Tommy John surgery, Buehler found his footing in his third start Saturday night, allowing three hits over six scoreless innings, striking out seven and walking none in a 4-0 victory over the Cincinnati Reds before a crowd of 49,239 in Dodger Stadium.

Manager Dave Roberts said before the game that Buehler, who was tagged for six earned runs and 11 hits, including three home runs, in 7 ? innings of his first two starts against Miami and San Diego, needed to improve the command of all his pitches.

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Buehler threw 55 of his 78 pitches for strikes and threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of 21 batters. He induced only five swinging strikes, an indication that he hasn’t recaptured his dominant form after going almost 23 months between big-league starts, but he got 19 called strikes.

Buehler had plenty of life on a four-seam fastball that averaged 94.9 mph and touched 97.1 mph, and he was able to locate his wide array of secondary pitches — a 78.5 mph knuckle-curve, 94.6 mph sinker, 91.3 mph cut-fastball and an 81.9 mph slider.

“I think I was pretty good at one point — I’ve started Game 1 of playoff series and opening day, and things like that — and I want to be really good again,” said Buehler, who earned his first win since May 24, 2022. “But I think I can be really good at 93-95 [mph], like I was tonight.

“Do I think 100 innings [into the season], when everything is stretched out and I feel confident enough that I can really reach back a lot? Yeah, yeah, I think it’s still in there. There are just more dominoes than I kind of anticipated.”

Buehler retired the first eight batters he faced before giving up a two-out single to No. 9 batter Jacob Hurtubise in the third inning. He then struck out three of the next four batters — Will Benson looking at a 97 mph fastball, Elly De La Cruz swinging at a 78 mph curve and cleanup man Spencer Steer swinging at an 81 mph slider.

After a miscommunication between center fielder Andy Pages and left fielder Miguel Vargas allowed Jake Fraley’s catchable drive to the gap drop for a triple in the fifth, Buehler escaped the runner-on-third, one-out jam by getting Jeimer Candelario to pop out to the catcher and Jonathan India to ground out to second base.

Dodgers left fielder Miguel Vargas collides with center fielder Andy Pages, forcing Pages to drop the ball
Dodgers left fielder Miguel Vargas (27) collides with center fielder Andy Pages (44), forcing Pages to drop the ball hit by Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jake Fraley (27) in the fifth inning at Dodger Stadium on Saturday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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Buehler closed his outing by getting the dangerous De La Cruz to chase a 78-mph curve in the dirt for strike three and whiffing Mike Ford with a 91 mph cutter.

“It was really impressive,” Roberts said. “Tonight, you saw a guy who was a baseball player. He fielded his position. He covered first base. He wasn’t about rehab or mechanics. He was getting strike one. He was using his entire pitch mix. He wasn’t overthrowing. He was in control the entire night and was very efficient. He was getting the swing and miss that we all like, but he was getting soft contact.”

Buehler credited pitching coaches Mark Prior and Connor McGuiness and bullpen coach Josh Bard with a between-starts suggestion that Buehler move his right foot to the middle of the rubber so his body is more aligned with home plate.

“Traditionally I only had my toes basically on the rubber, and now my whole foot is on there,” Buehler said. “It doesn’t seem like that drastic of a change, but I’ve pitched my whole career over there, so moving probably six inches just makes everything look a little different. My body kind of lines up a little bit differently.

“Where I used to stand, I could only do so when I was young. That’s kind of a tough pill for me to swallow, but we’ve moved on the rubber, and a lot of things kind of clicked into place. The velo wasn’t as good as it had been, but the command was good. And I think there’s enough velo in there to still be pretty good.”

Michael Grove, a converted starter who has forged a higher-leverage role in the absence of injured closer Evan Phillips and setup men Joe Kelly and Ryan Brasier, struck out two of three batters in a scoreless seventh inning, and Daniel Hudson retired the side in order with a strikeout in the eighth.

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Right-hander J.P. Feyereisen retired the side in order in the ninth to seal the Dodgers’ 19th win in 25 games dating back to April 21.

The Dodgers scored twice in the fourth inning for a 2-0 lead, with Freddie Freeman and Teoscar Hernández drawing walks, Pages hitting an RBI single to center that advanced Hernández to third and Gavin Lux hitting an RBI groundout.

The Dodgers pushed the lead to 3-0 in the fifth when Miguel Rojas doubled to left with one out and scored on Freeman’s two-out RBI single to center. They tacked on an insurance run for a 4-0 lead in the eighth when Freeman led off with a double to right and scored on Teoscar Hernández’s one-out RBI single to right.

It was a good offensive night for Freeman, who had two hits, a walk, an RBI and two runs, but the veteran first baseman was more caught up in the return of Buehler, who, if he regains something close to his 2019-21 form, could team with Tyler Glasnow and Yoshinobu Yamamoto to give the Dodgers a formidable playoff rotation.

“A healthy Walker Buehler, that’s huge for us,” Freeman said. “You could tell he had some extra life on it tonight. I mean, it’s just his third start, he’s getting more and more confident in himself, in his arm, in his mechanics. He had a second Tommy John … that’s a long road back for him to pitch like he did tonight. It’s just awesome for him.”

Rehab report

Bobby Miller, sidelined since April 14 because of shoulder inflammation, threw off the Dodger Stadium mound on Saturday. Roberts said the right-hander will throw a three-inning simulated game this week and, barring a setback, begin a minor league rehabilitation stint next week.

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Closer Evan Phillips, who was placed on the 15-day injured list because of a right-hamstring strain May 5, threw a full-effort 20-pitch bullpen workout Saturday, and though the right-hander said he is “pain-free” and feeling “great,” Roberts said he is at least a week away from a return.

Clayton Kershaw, who hopes to return from shoulder surgery by late-July or early August, also threw off the stadium mound before Saturday night’s, spinning curveballs off a mound for the first time in his rehabilitation.

Betts breather

Mookie Betts was not in the lineup for the first time in 48 games Saturday night, Roberts saying he had planned earlier this week to give the shortstop and leadoff man a break.

“Mookie wants to play every day, but I just felt like with us in the middle of playing 13 games in a row, it’s a good time,” Roberts said. “Night game before a day game, we’ll let him re-charge his battery and get him back in there [Sunday.] I think it just keeps him strong and allows him to watch a baseball game.”

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