The last time Walker Buehler lost a game, pandemics were something that happened in science-fiction movies.
LeBron James hadn’t yet reached the postseason with the Lakers.
Jared Goff and Sean McVay were still viewed as inseparable.
Buehler extended his unbeaten streak to 29 starts Sunday, the right-hander overcoming early control problems to pitch six scoreless innings in a 5-3 victory over the Texas Rangers at Dodger Stadium.
While Clayton Kershaw is the most revered pitcher on the Dodgers and Trevor Bauer the most talked-about, the 26-year-old Buehler has quietly taken on the role as the most consistent.
In a season characterized by its volatility, Buehler is a perfect 6-0 with a 2.38 earned-run average. At a time when the team’s bullpen is shaky, he has pitched six or more innings in each of his 13 starts.
Buehler has become nearly as dependable as Kershaw was once, adopting his mindset and producing similar results.
“I expect to go deep into games and to have some success,” said Buehler while mentioning Kershaw. “I don’t think I would think or believe quite the same if he wasn’t here. That’s just kind of a nod to what kind of person and player he’s been for a long time here.”
And the more time Buehler spends with Kershaw, the more he is starting to sound like him, taking pride in pitching into the later innings and recalling his rare setbacks with precision.
Asked whether he remembered his most recent defeat, Buehler replied, “It was in September against the Rockies in ’19.”
He was right.
Since then, the Dodgers are 22-7 in games in which he started, including 5-2 in the postseason.
His latest triumph narrowed the Dodgers’ deficit to the first-place San Francisco Giants to a solitary game.
Buehler’s dependability has taken an oversized importance for these particular Dodgers.
The team can’t count on its offense, not with Corey Seager and Max Muncy on the disabled list.
Mookie Betts homered and scored a season-high three runs, but he is hitting only .253. Cody Bellinger missed another game Sunday, with manager Dave Roberts reporting that Bellinger’s left hamstring “didn’t feel great” when he tried running in the morning.
Questions have also surfaced about the pitching staff.
The spin rate on Bauer’s pitches has dropped significantly since Major League Baseball informed teams it would start enforcing rules that prohibit doctoring baseballs. Bauer was charged with six runs, four of them earned, in 6 1/3 innings in a loss to the Rangers on Saturday night.
Kershaw won his last start but was charged with five runs in six innings in each of his two starts before that. His ERA of 3.39 is his highest since he was a 20-year-old rookie.
Julio Urías is 9-2 with a 3.56 ERA but is already approaching his career high in innings pitched. He has pitched 78 1/3 innings this year; he’s never pitched more than 79 2/3 in a regular season.
Tony Gonsolin, who was sidelined for two months because of shoulder inflammation, made his season debut last week but recorded only five outs and walked five batters.
With the bullpen already an area of concern, closer Kenley Jansen has recently experienced a sharp decline in spin rate similar to Bauer’s. Jansen’s trademark cutter has averaged 2,785 revolutions per minute this season, according to Baseball Savant. That marks an increase from 2,553 rpm last year. Over Jansen’s last three appearances, however, the pitch has behaved how it did last season.
Jansen entered the game Sunday in the ninth inning with runners on the corners and the Dodgers leading 5-2. The spin rate of his cutter nearly 170 rpm less than his season average, he gave up two singles, one that drove in a run and another that loaded the bases. Jansen retired the next three batters to earn his 15th save, but the trend was nonetheless disconcerting.
In retrospect, the performance by Buehler was critical, especially when considering 33 pitches were required to complete a first inning in which he walked the bases loaded.
“Consistency,” Roberts said. “Found a way to come out of the first inning with no damage. Made pitches when he needed to. … After that first inning, to see that he put up six zeroes, is a credit to him.”
It’s also a source of comfort for a team that remains banged up and continually struck by misfortune.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.