Walker Buehler's long-awaited Dodgers return might require more waiting

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Walker Buehler has been champing at the bit for so long — it has been more than 22 months since the 29-year-old right-hander last pitched for the Dodgers — that his teeth are beginning to hurt.

“Yeah,” Buehler said on Sunday, before the Dodgers wrapped up a nine-game homestand with a 10-0 victory over the New York Mets, “I’m pretty ready to roll.”

Buehler hopes to check the final box in his return from a second Tommy John surgery when he makes his fifth minor league rehabilitation start, this one for triple-A Oklahoma City, at Albuquerque on Wednesday night.

But he acknowledged that, in light of his uneven performance in his first four games, he might need two more starts before returning to a rotation that, with the exception of ace Tyler Glasnow, has been plagued by inconsistency and injury and entered Tuesday night’s game at Washington with a 3.91 ERA, the 14th-best mark in baseball.

Buehler began his rehab stint for Oklahoma City with a March 31 start at Tacoma, where he gave up three earned runs and three hits, struck out two and walked two in a 54-pitch effort.

He pushed his pitch count to 65 in his next start for Oklahoma City on April 6, blanking Albuquerque on two hits, striking out six and walking none over 4 ⅔ innings.

But Buehler suffered a setback with Class-A Rancho Cucamonga on April 12 when he was struck in the right middle finger by a comebacker and had to come out of the game after throwing only 27 pitches in two innings, well short of his 80-pitch target.

His next and most recent start, for Oklahoma City last Thursday night, was a bit of a slog. The first four Sacramento batters he faced reached base in a two-run first inning. Buehler completed just 2 ⅔ innings, giving up two earned runs and four hits, striking out three and walking four.

Buehler threw just 68 pitches, well short of his target of 80-85 pitches, and half of them were balls.

“Not great,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said last week, when asked how Buehler has looked during his rehab stint. “Not great.”

What do Roberts and the Dodgers need to see from Buehler?

“Command,” Roberts said. “He hasn’t pitched in a long time, but when you’re [about to be] pitching for us, you have to be good, too. I expect him to dial it in.”

Buehler was the team’s ace during his last full season in 2021, when he went 16-4 with a 2.47 ERA in a major league-high 33 starts, striking out 212 and walking 52 in 207 ⅔ innings, and he has thrived in October, going 3-3 with a 2.94 ERA in 15 playoff starts, striking out 101 and walking 31 in 79 ⅔ innings.

His five-pitch mix, which is headed by a four-seam fastball that averaged 95.3 mph in 2022, includes a cut-fastball, knuckle-curve, slider, sinker and changeup. He has touched 96 mph with his fastball in his rehab starts and believes his velocity will improve when he returns to the big leagues.

“I think everyone hopes the adrenaline [of a major league game] will make you throw harder,” Buehler said. “My velo has been OK, but maybe we’ll get a tick or a little bump. You guys have seen me for a few years and know that I’m pretty emotional [on the mound], so I think I’m definitely excited to feel everything again.”

If Buehler can get his pitch count up to 85-90 over five innings and show consistent command of his secondary pitches, he could return to the Dodgers rotation next week for the first time since June 10, 2022.

But it has already been almost two years since Buehler has pitched in the big leagues, and the Dodgers aren’t going to rush his return. If he needs one more minor league start after Wednesday night’s game, so be it.

“We’re just trying to figure out where he is physically,” Roberts said. “The pitch count is getting up. The stuff was much better [last week], arguably as good as it’s been in a long time. So that’s good.

“He just couldn’t land the curveball. I appreciate he was making an effort to do that. But the [between-starts] bullpen was good, so he’s in a really good spot. But to get him up and down five times in his next outing, I think, will be very helpful.”

Staff writer Jack Harris contributed to this report.

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