Saturday, April 13

For Dodgers’ Walker Buehler, the season turns again with sore elbow: ‘Certainly concerning’

SAN FRANCISCO — Walker Buehler’s been looking for the right feel and look for more than a month at this point. He ditched a part of his windup for a start, only to bring it back the next. He’s oscillated between the tight and baggy fit of his pants, even. He’s been the only Dodgers starter brave enough to don their garish City Connect uniforms on the two occasions they’ve actually worn the all-blue garments this summer.

None of it has worked. He and the Dodgers have been in uncharted territory with their presumptive ace, their manager said before Friday night’s contest. His calling cards — his fastball and his ability to consistently pitch deep into games — have eluded him. And now an elbow that silently barked, off and on, felt a twinge on a breaking ball in the third inning Friday night at Oracle Park, only further tumbling things into flux.

The 27-year-old right-hander appeared to be settling in during the Dodgers’ 7-2 loss to the Giants, feeling as in-tune with his stuff, command and delivery as he had in nearly a month. But snapping off a breaking ball while striking out the side in the third left a “zing” in a familiar spot that already bears a Tommy John scar. He alerted the Dodgers’ staff of the pain, which he said he’d felt on and off through the years following his post-draft surgery, but felt it would eventually dissipate.

“I tried to pitch through, see if it would pop away,” Buehler said. “Sometimes that will happen. It didn’t happen for me tonight.”

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The Dodgers labeled Buehler’s ailment as right elbow discomfort, throwing a potential major blow to the club’s pitching plans in mid-June. He will undergo an MRI on Saturday morning, he said.

This pain didn’t build. It just didn’t go away, growing more specific and raising alarm bells in a way the radar gun didn’t.

The stuff was there. His fastball at times popped. He located some well. He got some swings and misses, at one point striking out five batters in a row. Then he went to the well again in the fourth for a slider that just backed up and right onto Darin Ruf’s barrel for a solo homer, the third charged run of the night bringing his ERA above four. The gnawing discomfort was persistent even as the frustration at home-plate umpire Chris Conroy’s strike zone bubbled and brought pitching coach Mark Prior out for a visit to tame him.

“Frustrating is a good start for describing tonight for Walker,” manager Dave Roberts said.

Buehler’s last pitch of that eventful fourth, a fastball, left his hand at 94.8 mph and was scalded right to a well-positioned Mookie Betts in right field. It would be Buehler’s last pitch of the night, an alarming finish to an uneven performance after just 70 pitches.

The Dodgers have urged patience with Buehler as he’s worked through his woes for the last month. They had reason to — surprise performances from the likes of Tony Gonsolin and Tyler Anderson gave them ample room. But a temporary salve is not a long-term solution, particularly if Buehler has to miss extended time.

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“I’m trying not to get too out ahead of myself,” Roberts said. “But anytime when you’re talking about the elbow, you’re talking about a guy like Walker who can’t finish his start because of discomfort, it’s certainly concerning.”

The right-hander has been transparent about the tenuous relationship between pitching and elbows. The damaged ligament he pitched through as he completed his collegiate career at Vanderbilt is what allowed the Dodgers to select him in the back end of the first round and find a future ace in the process. His 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame whips toward the plate to generate the supreme velocity he was able to hold deep into Friday’s start, forcing him to ensure his mechanics are neatly manicured over much of his big league tenure as he’s tweaked the dials of his six-pitch mix.

It’s made him a devastating weapon for the Dodgers up until the struggles of the last month. It made those struggles all the more perplexing.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that that’s some reason for the inconsistencies this year,” Roberts said of Buehler’s ailing elbow. “He’ll never say that.”

Buehler wouldn’t cede that point Friday night. “I’m not a person that’s going to blame that,” he said. “I didn’t throw the ball great.

“I think before we dive into it at all, I’d like to know what I’m actually doing with my elbow and my career.”

The state of that elbow has immediate concerns, too. This is a rotation that was less than 24 hours away from Clayton Kershaw returning to a big-league mound. Andrew Heaney might need just one more rehab start before the Dodgers could see how much of that two-start magic stuck. And a rotation taxed by injury and usage was ready for a breather after an arduous stretch.

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Moreover, Buehler’s presence in the Dodgers’ rotation swings the club’s margin in October. He is the centerpiece of the staff, with a proven postseason track record to boot. And for an organization whose success is largely weighed and measured off a stretch of a few weeks in the fall, the need for a frontline starter of Buehler’s pedigree is imperative.

(Photo of Walker Buehler on June 4: Kirby Lee / USA Today)

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