Hernández: Walker Buehler's return was encouraging. Can he can build on it?

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Inside of the interview room at Dodger Stadium, Walker Buehler sounded conflicted.

“I wish it could’ve gone better,” Buehler said.

In the hallway outside, the surgeon who twice repaired his elbow was beaming.

From a medical perspective, team physician Neal ElAttrache said Buehler’s return to the mound on Monday night was a resounding triumph.

So what if Buehler labored through the first two innings of the Dodgers’ 6-3 victory over the Miami Marlins?

So what if the former All-Star was charged with three earned runs?

So what if his elevated pitch count forced him out of the game after only four innings?

“What he showed today is that he has complete function performance back in his elbow,” ElAttrache said.

ElAttrache, who has operated on everyone from Kobe Bryant to Tom Brady, pointed to how an amped-up Buehler threw a fastball in the first inning that was clocked at 97.6 mph.

Manager Dave Roberts said before the game that he didn’t expect Buehler to be touching 96-97 mph in his first major league game in 23 months, but the former All-Star delivered 13 pitches that produced readings of 96 mph or faster.

“I think it proved to him tonight that it’s there when he needs it,” ElAttrache said.

ElAttrache was even more encouraged by how Buehler pitched in the third and fourth innings, in which he blanked the Marlins.

“The shape of some of his breaking balls were devastating, dropping north to south,” ElAttrache said. “That shows that the tendon is healthy because you need that healthy tendon to spin it like that.”

ElAttrache said those two innings offered a glimpse of how Buehler could be effective again.

By throwing fastballs in the 94-95 mph range.

By mixing in his curveball, slider and changeup.

By occasionally reaching back and delivering a 97- or 98-mph heater.

“When he settled in,” ElAttrache said, “he threw a lot of really quality pitches.”

It should be noted that Buehler was pitching against the Marlins, not the Philadelphia Phillies or Atlanta Braves.

Even in a league in which some teams were designed to lose, the Marlins stand out for how terrible they are. They were 15 ½ games out of first place after their defeat on Monday night, the greatest deficit of any team in the majors.

ElAttrache was optimistic nonetheless.

A couple of months after Buehler was sidelined in the 2022 season, ElAttrache replaced his ulnar collateral ligament, which he previously repaired seven years earlier. He also operated on his deep flexor and pronator tendons, and removed a calcium deposit in his elbow.

Simply returning to the major leagues marked a significant milestone. But ElAttrache was hopeful he could be more than just another pitcher. Buehler was, too.

This is no small matter for the Dodgers.

Buehler rediscovering his All-Star form and complementing Tyler Glasnow at the top of the rotation would solidify the Dodgers’ status as World Series favorites.

Buehler stumbling would leave the team exposed if the injury-prone Glasnow goes down again or Yoshinobu Yamamoto fatigues in the late stages of the season.

“I just want to win,” Buehler said. “For me, it’s always been [about] being a guy that 25 other guys want to have the ball when we need to win a game.”

The right-hander praised Glasnow and Yamamoto. He said he looked forward to the sidelined Clayton Kershaw and Bobby Miller rejoining the rotation.

“There’s just a lot of good things that come out of how much talent that we have, and how close we all are and how we kind of push each other,” he said. “I’m excited for that, and I just want to be a cog in that. I don’t think, right now, I’m gonna be the No. 1 [starter] on our team, and that’s fine with me. But I would like to push myself closer to that conversation.”

Monday night was the first step.

The next will be on Sunday. The Dodgers will be closing out a three-game series against the second-place San Diego Padres at Petco Park and Buehler is scheduled to be on the mound.

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