| USA TODAY
Dodgers advance to the World Series for third time in four years
SportsPulse: The Dodgers are headed back to the World Series for the third time in four years. Bob Nightengale explains why this may finally be the team that reaches the mountain top.
ARLINGTON, Texas — He’s the baby-faced assassin.
A 26-year-old kid who looks like he could still be in high school, longing for whiskers to shave his face.
Well, after Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler’s performance Friday night on baseball’s biggest stage, there won’t be anyone in the game who can ever look at him again the same.
Buehler suffocated the Tampa Bay Rays, 6-2, giving the Dodgers a 2-1 lead in the World Series for the first time since 1988.
Yes, the last time they won the World Series.
That Dodger team had Orel Hershiser.
This Dodger edition has the modern-day version of the Bulldog, a ferocious competitor who refuses to succumb to pressure. The bigger the moment, the more he embraces it, wanting to be the man to carry this Dodger team to a place they haven’t gone in 32 years.
“He’s confident, man, a confident dude,’’ said Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes, who became only the second player in World Series history to homer and have a run-scoring sacrifice bunt in the same game. “We love having him on the mound. He’s our guy.
“He seems like he always peaks at the right time for us, peaks at the biggest moment.’’
It was just a week ago when Buehler saved the Dodgers’ season, taking the mound with the Dodgers down 3 games to 2 to Atlanta, and forcing a Game 7 with his six-inning shutout performance.
This night, he was even better, giving up just three hits and one run in six innings, while striking out 10. He was the first pitcher in history to strike out 10 batters in a World Series game while not pitching more than six innings.
“I appreciate how talented he is … but I’m living through it,’’ Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “and haven’t put it together and grasped all that he’s accomplished in this short period of time. Being a big-game pitcher, and succeeding on this stage, he’s in some really elite company.
“I’m just glad he’s in a Dodger uniform.’’
Buehler has made 11 appearances in the postseason, and is 3-1 with a 2.35 ERA, yielding just 39 hits and striking out 83 in 61 ⅓ innings.
The bigger the moment the greater he becomes. He has started five times this postseason, yielding a 1.80 ERA with 39 strikeouts in 25 innings, and the Dodgers have won four of those games.
He has made two World Series starts in his career, and has given up one run and five hits, striking out 17 in 13 innings.
“I been through this thing a couple of times now,’’ Buehler flatly said. “Similar emotions. If think the more you do things, the calmer you get. I enjoy doing this. I feel good in these spots.’’
He certainly made life miserable for the Rays, right at the outset. He struck out four of the first five batters he faced. He didn’t give up a hit until the fifth inning. And he stuck out three batters in the sixth before giving way to a rested bullpen.
“He was unbelievable, he really was,’’ Barnes said. “That might have been the best I’ve ever seen his stuff. His fastball was special.’’
Buehler kept pumping fastball after fastball, throwing 57 pitches 96-mph or higher, while keeping them off-balance with his curveball. The Rays didn’t have a chance.
“The fastball command was incredible,’’ said Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner, who tied Duke Snider’s franchise record with his 11th postseason homer. “He pitches with his fastball, and he’s aggressive with it. You know he’s going to throw it. It’s like, try to hit it if you can.’’
The Dodgers’ starting rotation, behind Buehler and Kershaw, have held the Rays to a .133 batting average, the lowest batting average in the first three games of a World Series since the 1915 Boston Red Sox.
The Dodgers’ offense, meanwhile, is turning this World Series into a clutch hitting showcase. They scored five runs Friday with two strikes and two outs. They have scored 50 runs with two outs, and 36 runs with two strikes, the most in a single postseason, according to Elias Sports.
The Dodgers now find themselves just two victories away from ending their 32-year World Series championship drought. It hardly compares to the Boston Sox’s 86-year curse that ended in 2004. Or the Chicago Cubs’ 108-year drought. But Roberts, who had the stolen base heard ‘round New England in the 2004 ALCS against the New York Yankees, certainly understands the magnitude.
“I don’t think there could be anymore to what we dealt with in Boston,’’ Roberts said. “That was a lot of burden to kind of inherit. Its more of an understanding with the great fan bases, and what it means when you take on a job that hasn’t won a championship in a while.
“I want it for all of us.’’
Is it safe to go ahead and dream?
“Absolutely not,’’ Turner said. “We know how difficult this is. We know there’s still a lot of work in front of us. We were down 3-1 in the last series and fought our way back.
“We’re not taking anything for granted.’’
Well, at least not unless there’s a Game 7.
If the World Series goes the limit, guess who takes the mound on regular rest for the Dodgers?
Yep, that man again, Walker Buehler.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale