Hernández: Walker Buehler isn't letting high-stakes season diminish his trademark bravado

He’s played with Clayton Kershaw, who would insist he was healthy when he really wasn’t because he was determined to make his next start.

He also has played with Max Scherzer, who removed himself from the postseason rotation because he didn’t want to risk an injury that would compromise his value on the free-agent market.

So if Walker Buehler winds up in a position in which he has to prioritize the Dodgers’ competitive needs or his long-term health and financial future, whose example will he follow?

Buehler scoffed at the question.

“I think I try to take the ball any time,” Buehler said. “I don’t think there’s much question about that.”

In other words, Walker Buehler was insisting he was still Walker Buehler.

The former Next Big Thing is now 29 and at a career crossroads. The former All-Star will return to the mound this season after sitting out all of last year recovering from his second Tommy John surgery. He’ll also be a free agent at the end of the season.

The stakes are immense not only for Buehler, but also for the Dodgers, who are counting on him and other pitchers with disconcerting medical histories such as Tyler Glasnow and James Paxton. Buehler is expected to begin the season on the injured list, but the Dodgers envision him starting games for them in the playoffs.

A pitcher coming off of his second elbow reconstruction faces longer odds of returning to his previous level of performance than a pitcher coming off of his first, so Buehler has taken measures to improve his chances of remaining healthy.

Bueher reshaped his once-slender frame and now weighs around 205 pounds. He said he never before pitched above 185.

“My elbow keeps, man, so I had to put a little weight around it and try to protect it a little bit,” he said with a chuckle.

Buehler joked how standing next to 5-foot-10 Japanese import Yoshinobu Yamamoto made him “look really fat.”

Similar to Yamamoto, Buehler lacks the height of a prototypical starting pitcher, as he is listed at 6-2. Buehler relies on an explosive delivery to generate power behind his mid- to high-90s fastball, and his athleticism didn’t appear to be compromised when he threw his first bullpen session of the spring Friday.

“You get to the big leagues and have any sort of success, I think it’s hard to change anything,” Buehler said. “You want to do what got you there or whatever. You get hurt twice the way I have, sometimes you gotta kind of figure something else out. I think the athleticism in my delivery, or whatever you want to call it, has gotten me to where I am. So put on weight and try to keep that, I think, makes a lot of sense.”

He said he didn’t expect to change how he pitched either.

“I hope not,” he said. “I like how I used to pitch.”

Buehler said his confidence hasn’t been diminished by the questions over his health. From the time he broke into the majors, Buehler had a swagger that set him apart from others. The results soon matched his demeanor, with Buehler establishing a reputation as a big-game pitcher.

“I think he has that and more,” manager Dave Roberts said.

Roberts agreed with the assessment that Buehler is now overlooked in the wake of the team’s nine-figure deals with Yamamoto and Tyler Glasnow.

“He was our guy and he has pitched in big games, but that’s the way things work,” Roberts said. “You just continue to move on. Yeah, there were some other names we talked about this winter and we acquired. So certainly there’s a personal expectation and you want to be the guy. Walker wants to be the guy, for sure.”

Pitching on the big stage last year was what Buehler had in mind when he started pitching in minor league games in September. He didn’t make it back, but he touched 96 mph in his rehabilitation assignment.

“I would have liked to feel better, I would’ve liked to throw 93 and be able to pitch in the playoffs, but to know that there’s some velocity still in there, I think, is definitely a good sign,” he said. “In my bullpens, I’ve been firm enough for my liking , so I’ll see how it goes.”

How it goes will determine what the free-agent market will look like for Buehler, who will earn $8.025 million this year. His place on the Dodgers isn’t guaranteed beyond this season, as Yamamoto and Glasnow are signed to long-term contracts, and Shohei Ohtani is expected to resume pitching next season.

Buehler said he wasn’t thinking about any of that.

“The rest of your career, for me at least, depends on me being healthy and productive this year,” he said. “So that’s obviously my focus.”

Buehler pitched Game 163 of the 2018 regular season against the Colorado Rockies, and he won to deliver the Dodgers another division championship. He replaced Kershaw as the team’s Game 1 starter.

He wants to be that again. In a season in which the Dodgers signed $1.2 billion worth of players, he could be their most important addition.

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