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Walker Buehler, from prospect to World Series starter

It’s make or break time for the Dodgers in the World Series. Getting the ball is stud rookie Walker Buehler.

MLB: NLCS-Milwaukee Brewers at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Dodgers trail the Boston Red Sox 2-0 in the 2018 MLB World Series. In arguably the biggest game of the entire season, the Dodgers hand the ball to rookie Walker Buehler.

There isn’t a more suited rookie in Major League Baseball to take the bump in such a crucial Game 3.

Buehler has always been “that guy”. He was a big part of the Vanderbilt Commodores success, leading them to the College World Series finals in back-to-back seasons. He and Carson Fulmer were as formidable a one-two punch in college baseball as any that year. Buehler went 12-2 with a 2.64 ERA and a team-best 111 strikeouts in 102.1 innings, while walking just 31. He was equally dominant in his final season until injury struck.

That 2015 MLB Draft saw a star-studded Commodores first round. Dansby Swanson went first overall, Fulmer seven picks later and Buehler No. 24 to the Dodgers. Without injury concerns, Buehler arguably went higher, but it was Fulmer who became a top 10 pick, one in which our own Jason Kinander felt the White Sox still regret.

The ensuing Tommy John surgery and resulting absence from nearly the entire 2016 season didn’t bother our own John Sickels one bit. He had Buehler No. 19 in his initial 2016 Dodgers top 20 without ever throwing a professional pitch. Buehler returned at the end of 2016 for five scoreless innings, and his climb up the rankings, and minor leagues, quickly began.

From John Sickels 2017 Dodgers top 20:

8) Walker Buehler, RHP, Grade B/B-: Age 22, first round pick in 2015 from Vanderbilt; had Tommy John surgery after signing, came back in ’16 and threw five shutout innings late in season in rookie ball and Low-A; threw 90-95 MPH fastball in college but after surgery he’s reportedly at 94-97 with peaks at 99; strong secondaries with cutter and curveball both plus, also showed solid change-up in college as well as command; main issue now is stamina/workload and how much of the new velocity he retains; grade cautious until we get those answers. ETA 2018.

From 2018, after making his big league debut the year prior with just 93.2 professional innings under his belt:

1) Walker Buehler, RHP, Grade A-: Age 23, first round pick in 2015 from Vanderbilt, recovered from Tommy John surgery without glitches posting 3.35 ERA with 125/31 K/BB in 89 innings between High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, had some command issues during major league trial (7.71, 12/8 K/BB in 9 innings) but I doubt that will be a long-term problem; has retained pre-injury plus curveball while boosting fastball velocity, up to 99-100 MPH; still need to see what happens when he gets past 100 innings but his stuff looks special and he knows how to use it; possible number two starter. ETA 2018.

The next step for Buehler? A dominating rookie campaign at the big-league level. The 24-year-old righty was unbelievable, often times when the Dodgers needed him most. He went 8-5 with a 2.62 ERA and 0.961 WHIP over 137.1 regular season innings, striking out 151 and walking 37. Buehler notched a combined no-hitter on May 4 and tossed a memorable one-hit performance in Game 163 to get the Dodgers into the NLDS. He has gotten roughed up a bit since then in the postseason, but he righted the ship just in time in another big game, this time Game 7 of the NLCS. Though he just went 4.2 innings of one-run ball, he struck out seven and walked none, setting the Dodgers up for a return to the World Series.

College ace. First round draft pick. Top prospect. Big-game pitcher. The NL Rookie of the Year in any other season that didn’t have Ronald Acuña or Juan Soto. Not just the best curveball in the Dodgers system, but what many considered the best curve in the minor leagues for his short time there.

There’s only one thing missing from his resume. And that ends Friday night in L.A. After watching a full-season of Buehler, expect nothing less than another knockout performance on baseball’s biggest stage.