Walker Buehler wore a blue sweatshirt in the dugout and the contented smile of someone who had successfully completed his job. But that’s a little like saying Michelangelo relaxed after he painted the room — not to put Walker’s latest opus on the same level as the artistic masterwork, but in the baseball sense, it was excellent.
With the World Series knotted at a game apiece, Buehler provided a commanding pitching performance worthy of the Dodgers’ legendary aces, and his teammates did equally well on offense.
The result was a 6-2 win on Friday over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 3 of the World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, as the Dodgers seized momentum with a terrific all-around effort. Game 4 set for Saturday night at the same stadium.
In six dominating innings, Buehler allowed three hits, one run and one walk while collecting 10 strikeouts, three of them coming at the expense of Brandon Lowe, the hero of Game 2. Four of the Rays’ first six outs were by strikeout as Buehler set the tone for the game. He did not allow a hit until Manuel Margot’s double into the left-field corner with one out in the fifth inning.
“That might be the best I’ve ever seen his stuff,” said Austin Barnes, the Dodgers’ catcher.
Buehler was almost impenetrable. With a fiery fastball that he spotted with pinpoint location and a curveball that kept the Rays’ hitters off balance, Buehler buzzed through the Rays’ lineup. Perhaps the only reasons he was smiling casually in a sweatshirt on the bench in the seventh inning, instead of pitching, had to do with his recent history of dealing with a blister on his pitching hand, and the fact that his manager, Dave Roberts, wanted to get some relief pitchers some work.
“He gave us all that he needed to give,” Roberts said, “and we should close it out.”
The game began as a matchup of two superb starting pitchers — Buehler, who went into the game with a 1.89 earned run average in the 2020 postseason, and Charlie Morton, with a 3-0 record, a 0.57 E.R.A. and a reputation as a big-game pitcher.
But Morton struggled to put the Dodgers away with two outs. Los Angeles scored five of their runs with two outs, and now have 50 such runs in the postseason.
“There’s two outs, but you can still build an inning,” said Mookie Betts, who hit a run-scoring single with two outs in the fourth. “Not giving away at-bats, that’s the recipe for that and that’s how you win a World Series, so we have to continue to do it for at least two more games.”
Justin Turner sparked the Dodgers offense by hitting a bases-empty home run with two outs in the first inning, and then hit a two-out double his next time up, in the third inning. That set Max Muncy up to rap a two-run single to center field off Morton for a 3-0 Dodgers lead.
Turner also made a terrific play at third base, going to his left to backhand a sharp bouncer off the bat of Mike Zunino to initiate a double play and wipe away the only base runner the Rays had in the first four and one-third innings.
While Buehler remained locked in a groove, the Dodgers also demonstrated that, while the tendency in baseball over the past several years drifted away from the small-ball tactics of past years, they have not been totally abandoned. In recent years, baseball has increasingly moved toward a heavy reliance on home runs and big innings, with techniques like stolen bases and sacrifice bunts consigned to the strategic trash heap.
But the Dodgers put both of the largely abandoned tactics on display Friday, with Betts stealing a couple of bases and Barnes executing a perfect safety squeeze bunt.
In the top of the fourth, Cody Bellinger led off the inning with a single to right field. Morton struck out Chris Taylor, but Joc Pederson ripped a line drive over the outstretched glove of Ji-Man Choi, the Rays’ athletic first baseman, for a single. With runners at first and third, Pederson feigned as if he were stealing second, which temporarily froze Lowe, the Rays’ second baseman.
On the pitch, Barnes gently tapped a bunt up the first base line. Bellinger ran home on contact, and Choi’s only play was to toss the ball to Lowe, covering first base, to force out Barnes. Not only did the sacrifice bunt score a run, it also moved Pederson to second base, and he scored on a single by Betts.
Of course, Barnes is also capable of playing the more modern game: He whacked a home run in the top of the sixth that provided an exclamation point on an emphatic Dodgers win.
One of the few bright spots for the Rays was that Randy Arozarena, who had gone 1 for 6 in the first two games of the series, drilled a home run in the ninth inning off Kenley Jansen. It was his eighth home run of the postseason, tying him with Barry Bonds, Carlos Beltran and Nelson Cruz. It was also his 23rd hit of the postseason, breaking a postseason record for rookies that he had shared with Derek Jeter, who had 22 in the 1996 postseason.
But even Arozarena could do nothing against Buehler, striking out twice in his three at-bats. After watching the proceedings from third base, Turner said he found Buehler’s fastball command to be exquisite, and said he relished the way the 26-year-old right-hander mixed in his slider and curveball at just the right moments.
But the best brush strokes, as usual, were made with his fastball.
“You know he’s going to throw it,” Turner said, “and he says, ‘Hit it if you can,’ and he got a lot of swings and misses with it tonight.”
Turner said he would sleep better Friday night, not just because of the win, but because he made some adjustments to his swing that would help him in the rest of the series. His home run was his 11th in the postseason for the Dodgers, tying him with Duke Snider, who hit 11 in the World Series exclusively, before other playoff rounds were introduced.
“It’s something that’s pretty cool, and I can talk about when I’m done playing,” Turner said, “but it doesn’t mean a lot until we finish this thing off and win two more games.”