Walker Buehler surprises even himself in return to Dodgers: ‘I belong here again’

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LOS ANGELES — Walker Buehler threw his first pitch in the major leagues with a twice-reconstructed elbow and immediately looked back.

He’s glanced at the radar gun after pitches for as long as he can remember. This time, he didn’t know what to expect. For 22 months, the man the Los Angeles Dodgers hoped to build their future rotation around forgot what this felt like.

Each day, he and the collection of injured pitchers banished to the club’s spring training complex at Camelback Ranch in Arizona would sit and talk about hope. After each day of throwing, they talked about being back for nights like Monday night’s 6-3 win, in front of a full crowd, and being themselves again. They’d speak of coming back looking just like they did before. Some days, Buehler felt it and believed it. After bad ones, he said it just to hold onto the possibility that he could speak hope into existence. Maybe being back in that moment would spark what he needed to be whole again.

Buehler has always projected confidence, but every once in a while, there was a crack in the veneer. He felt that when he turned around from his first fastball to Miami Marlins center fielder Jazz Chisholm Jr. His answer flashed on the scoreboard at Dodger Stadium: 96 mph.

Harder than he had thrown since going under the knife for a second Tommy John surgery.

“You kind of get that, ‘I belong here again’ thing,” Buehler said. “It was cool.”

A couple of pitches later, he surprised himself again and hit 98 mph. The number was important to him. It’s as hard as he threw in his final season before getting hurt again in 2022. A figure that gave him at least some level of concern he’d ever get back to.

“I didn’t think there was 98 in there,” Buehler said. Hope was met with relief.

He could have lived with 94, where he sat for much of the last month. He could have been good, too, he feels. The Dodgers have always vouched for Buehler’s ability to utilize the rest of his arsenal. Buehler’s ability to make the ball move wherever and however he wants is different from his peers. Pitchers whose arms go through what his right arm has typically don’t come out of it the same way, so he was prepared to pivot. But it’s easier just to remain who you are.

“It’s just a lot easier for me to do it the way that I know how to do it,” Buehler said. “The idea that I can kind of get pretty close to what I used to do, it makes it a little more attainable, I think.”

Buehler’s return to the Dodgers will rely on more than what his new ulnar collateral ligament can do when pressed to its max velocity. For much of his return to a big league mound on Monday, he looked the part of a pitcher who hadn’t thrown a big-league pitch in 696 days. His fastball popped on the radar gun, but he lacked much feel for the rest of his arsenal. The breaking balls he did land in the strike zone got hit. The first inning and all the ceremony that came with it exhausted him. A putrid Marlins lineup got their licks in early before Buehler found it.

It wasn’t a storybook return. He gave up three runs in four innings. Not walking anyone was a plus, but dominance didn’t return overnight.

For once, he didn’t mind all that much. He chastised himself for the things that eluded him — he struggled to put away hitters with two strikes like he had before and he showed lapses in controlling the running game — but found perspective to make it palatable.

There are still steps forward from here. Buehler didn’t allow a run over his final two innings. He snapped off a couple of breaking balls to his liking, including a knuckle curve to Nick Gordon that looked like his very best. His arm didn’t hurt after.

“Walking in (here) and my arm can be fully straight,” Buehler said.

So much has changed since the last time Buehler took the mound here, and yet little is different. He’s a father now, joking about moonlighting as a podcaster during his rehab. He has added weight, hoping it will reduce the strain on his elbow. When he plopped down into the chair of a packed interview room Monday night, he was reflective and insightful. Even vulnerable.

He spoke like someone wizened from the experience of having endured this rehab twice, once as a draftee fresh out of college and again just as his ascent was reaching his peak. He wore a wedding band and prepared to go home to his daughter, Finley.

And yet, it doesn’t take that strong an ear to hear the expletives exploding from his mouth when he faced hitters for the first time this spring. During those summer rehab days in Arizona, it was always easy to know when it was Buehler’s turn at the ping-pong table — you could hear him. You could call it cockiness when he was a rookie. Now it’s just Buehler being who he is.

“Having that amount of time off, some different things in my family, having a daughter, you kind of — I’m a lot happier to just be playing than I used to be,” Buehler said. “But I’m still just as competitive as I used to be. It might even be worse now because I’m so happy and so mad at the same time. I used to just be mad at the time. Hopefully, I get back to that, just being mad all the time.”

As he took the mound, the Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls On Parade” blared through the ballpark like it always does. This part of him, pitching on this stage, has “been caged up for quite some time,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. Monday’s return provided an outlet.

The Dodgers have been blunt. “We don’t know exactly how this is gonna play out,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said this week. They didn’t know what his twice-repaired right elbow could produce. Roberts admitted pregame he would be surprised if he saw Buehler flash the same premium velocity he’d had before.

But they knew enough about the rest of him. He’s willing to push himself. This time a year ago, he was saying he’d be back by September, a little more than a year after undergoing his second Tommy John surgery. It was a preposterous idea, but one that appeared possible; Buehler made it as far as a rehab game before being shut down last fall. Now, after that long absence and the doubt that came with it, he’s back. One thing definitely hasn’t changed.

“I think he’s an elite competitor,” Friedman said. “I think guys that are that good at competing would throw it underhand if it would get them an out. He’ll do whatever it takes.”

And so Buehler’s start day fostered that same, giddy excitement from those around the organization. Assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness hinted at the velocity to come hours later, raving about how the once-ascendant star had looked in the days leading up to his return.

“Daddy Walker’s gonna be out there tonight,” McGuiness said. “It’s going to be fun.”

That presence means something. It wasn’t all that long ago that Buehler was the future. Now, almost 30 and on the brink of free agency, he’s just trying to fit in on a club that spent a billion dollars this winter to reinforce the roster and rotation. By the time Buehler left the mound, new additions like Shohei Ohtani and Teoscar Hernández had already swatted homers to bolster his case. That was different from even the best of clubs Buehler was part of before. The Dodgers won again, the 12th victory in their last 14 games.

They’ll take Monday as a positive. His stuff looked good. His elbow didn’t bother him. He’s “gonna wake up feeling like he got in a car accident,” Roberts said, but be happy for it. He’ll have another start in about a week to take another step forward. The Dodgers want him to be good in October. He’ll have to be consistently good on nights like these first.

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