There were harmless grounders and confused swings against the curveball and slider. The cutter induced weak contact and efficacy ended at-bats. Even the changeup was key, leading to several punchouts on a career night for the Dodgers’ previously struggling ace.
After struggling with a fastball-heavy approach in his first three starts this year, Walker Buehler used his full arsenal to earn his first career shutout in the Dodgers’ 4-0 win against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday.
The right-hander pitched nine innings of three-hit ball. He struck out a season-high 10 batters, the 13th double-digit strikeout performance of his career. And he did it all by altering his pitch mix to perfection, keeping Diamondbacks hitters off balance and out of sync with all six of his weapons.
The four-seamer was still Buehler’s most common choice, though he threw it much better than in his previous three outings, showing an uptick in average velocity 94.6 mph, a notable increase in spin rate and much more consistent command.
But the 27-year-old, who earlier in his career routinely threw his fastball more than half the time, incorporated the rest of his pitches with much more frequency too.
While the heater accounted for 36 of his 108 pitches Monday, he also used the curveball 28 times, the cutter 25 times and the changeup, slider and sinker on a combined 19 occasions — following through on an adjustment manager Dave Roberts had been hoping to see pregame.
“I just think that he’s got to sequence more,” Roberts said. “Guys nowadays, more than ever, they’re just geared up for the fastball. So the game and the hitters tell you how you need to approach things, and if you need to change or not change.”
Buehler made the adjustment from the start.
He used the curveball to retire all three batters in the first. He picked up his first strikeout in the second on a wicked cutter to Pavin Smith, who grimaced in defeat after failing to check his swing. He got two more punchouts in the third, fanning Nick Ahmed with a late-breaking slider and getting back-to-back whiffs with the changeup against Ketel Marte.
In the fourth inning, Buehler plunked Seth Beer and then threw a wild pitch that allowed him to take second. He quickly extinguished the threat though, freezing Smith with a looping curveball.
He didn’t let another Diamondback reach base until there were two outs in the ninth, a streak of 15 consecutive outs that brought the Dodgers’ vocal contingent of visiting fans to life.
The Dodgers’ lineup gave Buehler plenty of support.
After entering the night with a 0.59 ERA in his first three starts, Diamondbacks right-hander Merrill Kelly was tripped up out of the gate, issuing a leadoff walk to Mookie Betts before being ambushed for back-to-back doubles by Freddie Freeman and Trea Turner — the latter scoring two runs and giving Turner 15 RBIs on the season, tied for the fifth-most in the majors.
Second baseman Max Muncy made it 3-0 with an RBI double in the fifth. Then catcher Will Smith hammered a solo blast in the eighth.
Buehler, meanwhile, continued to roll into the ninth.
As the game’s final out was recorded, a lazy fly ball to center field that Cody Bellinger put away with ease, the Dodgers fans were on their feet, chanting Buehler’s name as he came in for an embrace with Smith.
During the handsake line, Justin Turner flipped him the game ball. Freeman wrapped him in a hug.
After three shaky starts to begin his season, the Dodgers ace was back — with a new plan of attack.
Bellinger named NL player of the week
Bellinger was named National League player of the week after he went seven for 23 with three long balls and seven RBIs last week.
“It definitely feels good,” Bellinger said. “It’s just a week. But it’s better than not winning it, I guess. I’m just coming in every day and focusing on what’s important, just trying to be consistent and stay healthy. Those are the two most important things.”
Before the game, Roberts said no other Dodgers players had shown symptoms of COVID-19 following pitcher David Price’s positive test Sunday … The Dodgers recalled pitcher Andre Jackson and optioned outfielder Zach McKinstry.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.