May 18, 2024

Yoshinobu Yamamoto had his best start in the big leagues Thursday afternoon.

It wasn’t difficult to diagnose the reason why.

During an inconsistent opening month to the $325-million pitcher’s rookie season, Yamamoto’s fastball command was too often lacking. Touted as his most reliable trait during a sterling career in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, the right-hander’s ability to locate the heater — or, more precisely, avoid throwing it down the middle of the strike zone — had eluded him as he posted a 4.50 ERA through his first five starts.

Ahead of Thursday’s series finale against the Washington Nationals on Thursday, it was the dominant topic of conversation during manager Dave Roberts’ availability with reporters.

“The consistency of the fastball command is something that we just haven’t seen from pitch one to the end of an outing,” Roberts said. “So for me, the fastball command … is going to be a big tell for today.”

Then, right on cue in the Dodgers’ 2-1 win at Nationals Park, Yamamoto finally dotted the pitch as advertised in a scoreless six-inning, four-hit, seven-strikeout gem — firing mid-90 mph lasers to each corner of the strike zone, and crucially very few anywhere near the heart of the plate.

On a day the Dodgers (16-11) were once again wasteful offensively — they went one-for-10 with runners in scoring position, ended four straight innings on double plays and scored their only runs on a Teoscar Hernández second-inning home run and Freddie Freeman double in the eighth — Yamamoto’s dominance was required to complete a three-game series sweep.

The right-hander didn’t give up a hit until the third inning. He didn’t let multiple batters reach base at any point until the sixth. The only real bullet he had to dodge was a 105 mph comebacker from Eddie Rosario that came harrowingly close to hitting his face in the bottom of the fifth.

Underpinning the entire performance was his command of the fastball. Of his 40 times throwing the pitch, 17 resulted in either a whiff or called strike (home plate umpire Brian Walsh helped with some favorable calls), six were fouled off and — unlike past outings in which opponents would feast on misplaced four-seamers — only one resulted in a hit.

The precision helped Yamamoto get ahead in counts. It set him up to end at-bats with his wicked array of secondary weapons. It kept his pitch count under control too, allowing him to complete the sixth inning for a second consecutive outing, something he didn’t do once in his first four MLB appearances.

Granted, the rebuilding Nationals (10-14) hardly possess a juggernaut lineup. The night before his scoreless performance, a very different kind of rookie, mid-tier prospect Landon Knack, limited the hosts to just two runs over six frames.

Still, Yamamoto’s process looked much improved Thursday, with his pinpoint command providing a possible blueprint for future big-league success.

“When he throws it where he should throw it,” Roberts said, “it certainly plays as an elite fastball.”

And, more than that, it makes Yamamoto look more like the elite starter he was expected to be after signing his record-breaking contract this winter.

Buehler’s next step TBD

Walker Buehler won’t have to pitch on the “moon” anymore — Roberts’ nickname for the triple-A ballpark in Albuquerque where the former All-Star starter made his fifth rehab outing with the Dodgers’ Oklahoma City affiliate Wednesday.

Exactly when Buehler will finally return to the Dodgers’ orbit, however, remains unclear, according to the manager.

Although the high altitude in Albuquerque affected Buehler’s stuff Wednesday night, when he gave up seven hits and five runs (three earned), the right-hander did pitch into the fifth inning while throwing a season-high 86 pitches.

“It was like what you sort of expect to be at altitude,” Roberts said. “But he got into the fifth inning … and [got his] pitch count up, which was great.”

Roberts said the Dodgers would “circle back” with Buehler on Thursday to decide whether he needs one more rehab start or is ready to return to the majors for the first time since his Tommy John surgery in 2022.

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