Dodgers going for broke, to start Walker Buehler in tiebreaker

ByAlden Gonzalez ESPN logo
Monday, October 1, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO -- Dave Roberts' confidence persisted, even while his team spiraled. The Los Angeles Dodgers began the 2018 season with a 16-24 record, their worst 40-game start in 60 years. By May 16, they stood 10 games below .500. But Roberts declared -- then and throughout -- that his club would be crowned National League West champions when it was all said and done.

One game will now decide that.

The Dodgers' 15-0 drubbing ofSan Franciscoand the Colorado Rockies' 12-0 thrashing ofWashingtonon Sunday set up a one-game tiebreaker between them, which will be played at Dodger Stadium at 4 p.m. ET on Monday. The game will air on ESPN.

The Rockies will start German Marquez, and the Dodgers will counter with fellow right-hander Walker Buehler, the precocious rookie who has been among the sport's best pitchers over these last two months.

There was speculation on Sunday morning that Roberts might save Buehler, his best available option, for a potential wild-card game that would put the Dodgers' season on the line -- but Roberts won't settle for that.

"Our goal is to win the division," he said. "With Walker rested, having an extra day -- right now, he's our best. To win this game, to win the division -- it's in our hands. That's been our goal from the beginning."

The Dodgers swept the Rockies at the start of last week to take a 2 1/2-game lead in the NL West, but the Rockies have since won nine of 10 and both clubs now sport a 91-71 record.

A win on Monday would give the Dodgers their sixth consecutive NL West title and home-field advantage against the Atlanta Braves in the National League Division Series, which begins Thursday. A loss means they will travel to face either the Chicago Cubs or the Milwaukee Brewers -- who will play their own tiebreaker at Wrigley Field earlier on Monday -- in Tuesday's NL wild-card game.

"It's a must-win, I think, for us," Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp said. "We'd much rather win the division than be the wild card. But we're going to play like any game we've been playing this last month. We've been playing each game like a playoff game, so we gotta keep it going."

Buehler, who will take the mound on five days' rest, has a 1.70 ERA over his last 11 starts, with 20 walks and 84 strikeouts in 68 2/3 innings. The 24-year-old last faced the Rockies in a Sept. 19 start in which he overcame a 36-pitch first inning to allow two unearned runs, striking out 12 and walking only one.

He learned that day about the importance of slowing the game down and not making the circumstances bigger than the task in front of him, a mentality he hopes to take into the most important start of his young career.

"It all kind of culminates," Buehler said. "But at the same time, it's still a regular-season game. It's Game 163, which is all right, but we don't go home if we lose, get a day off if we win. We know it's going to be built up and it's going to be amplified and adrenaline will be going, but at the end of the day, it's another baseball game."

The Dodgers played one of their best, most complete baseball games in their regular-season finale.

Rich Hill -- who didn't find out he was starting Sunday until he awoke to Roberts' late-night text message the morning of the game -- altered the grip on his curveball, tweaked the mechanics of his windup and allowed only two baserunners through seven innings.

His offense scored 14 runs in the first five innings, at which point Roberts was able to empty his bench and feel confident that his beleaguered bullpen would get an extra day of rest.

"From the first pitch on," Roberts said, "our guys [played with conviction] today."

They'll need more of that against Marquez, who threw seven scoreless innings in his last start against the Philadelphia Phillies and sports a 2.57 ERA in three outings against the Dodgers this season. Roberts' contingency plan for a potential wild-card game might be to start Ross Stripling or Alex Wood in what could ultimately become a bullpen game, but the Dodgers are trying not to even ponder that scenario.

"It's not do or die," Roberts said of Monday's tiebreaker, "but obviously it's a must-win game. To win the game and to get a couple of days off, and to host a Division Series, is very important."