Walker Buehler rounded the final turn in his 13-month rehabilitation from a second Tommy John surgery and appeared to be sprinting down the homestretch when he threw two perfect innings, with his fastball touching 96 mph, for triple-A Oklahoma City against Round Rock on Sept. 3.
But the 29-year-old right-hander who hoped to boost the Dodgers’ beleaguered rotation in the playoffs couldn’t quite make it to the finish line, aborting his comeback because the recovery process was taking longer than he anticipated, and he didn’t want to jeopardize his 2024 season.
“The way I kind of explain it is I feel like I kind of bet on a longshot horse and it ran second,” Buehler said before Wednesday night’s 6-1 loss to the San Diego Padres in Dodger Stadium. “I certainly don’t think it came in last. I got really, really close.
“Whenever you’re in a rehab process, you’re assessing everything. After the game, we just didn’t like the pros and cons of where I was at and kind of moved forward with getting ready for next year.”
Buehler, a proven playoff performer who has a 3-3 record and 2.94 ERA in 15 career postseason starts, with 101 strikeouts and 31 walks in 79 ⅔ innings, admitted that the timing of his announcement “kind of sucks being this late in the year.”
The Dodgers weren’t counting on Buehler to front their playoff rotation but would have welcomed any contribution to a starting staff that has been ravaged by season-ending elbow injuries to Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, Clayton Kershaw’s velocity-sapping shoulder injury and the loss of Julio Urías to a domestic violence arrest.
But Buehler is also going to be a free agent after 2024, and with Kershaw and Urias hitting free agency this winter, Gonsolin missing next season, May missing at least a chunk of next season and the Dodgers likely declining Lance Lynn’s $18-million option, Buehler will be needed as much in 2024 as he would have been this October.
“I checked a lot of the boxes that I wanted to — I got to compete and go out [on rehab] and did it pretty quickly — and I’m proud of that,” Buehler said. “But at the end of the day, I just wasn’t recovering the way I would need to to make the kind of impact here, and also an impact that’s worth any of the risk of coming back.
“I kind of talked to everyone involved, my agents, the organization, my family, and this was just kind of the right thing to do. It’s obviously disappointing for me, but we still have a really good team here, and I’m excited to watch them the rest of the year.”
Buehler, a two-time All-Star who had his first elbow ligament replacement surgery after the Dodgers drafted him in the first round out of Vanderbilt in 2015, stressed that he did not have any kind of physical setback. His fastball was crisp in his rehab start, in which he struck out two of the six batters he faced.
“Physically, I felt really good,” Buehler said. “Just the recovery part of it is tough. I think the intensity of a [big-league] game versus any sort of live [batting-practice session] or going to triple-A or whatever and not feeling great …
“Thinking about trying to pitch in a playoff game and be on a roster and take a spot where I can’t come back as fast as I want to, I think a lot of the puzzle pieces worked, and a few of them didn’t.”
As much as Buehler would have loved to pitch in the playoffs and help the Dodgers reach the World Series, he feared he might become a “hindrance” if he couldn’t pitch deep into games he started, make more than one start in a seven-game series or struggled as a reliever. Buehler has an 11.32 ERA in nine games out of the bullpen.
“Have you seen my numbers as a reliever?” Buehler said. “I don’t think that’s something that I can really do at the level the guys we have can do, to be honest with you, regardless of my health.”
Buehler, who has always pitched with a confidence that borders on cockiness, seemed almost surprised by his doubts.
“I know that’s more humble than you guys are used to hearing from me,” he said, “but that’s part of it, that’s part of the decision.”
By pulling the plug on his comeback now, Buehler hopes to have a “normal” offseason in which he and his wife, McKenzie, are expecting their first child. Buehler will participate in January workouts in Dodger Stadium for the first time and expects to be ready for the start of spring training in February.
“At the end of the day,” Buehler said, “I think it was the right decision for myself and the organization.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.