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Walker Buehler: the pride of Ecton Park and Henry Clay

October 3, 2018 FieldsColumn


Karen Walker, third from left, held a watch party at her Lexington home on Monday when her son, Walker Buehler, led the Dodgers past the Rockies. Shown above with Karen are her father, Dave Walker; daughter Bella, and her mom, Joyce Walker.  (Photo by Mike Fields)

BY MIKE FIELDS (Oct. 3, 2018)

Walker Buehler threw 6 2/3 innings of one-hit, shutout baseball, and along the way collected his first RBI in the majors, to lead the Los Angeles Dodgers past the Colorado Rockies 5-2 on Monday and to their sixth consecutive National League West Division title.

The heartiest cheers for Buehler’s performance didn’t come from the sellout crowd at Chavez Ravine, though. They emanated from a home on Lakewood Drive right here in Lexington.

Karen Walker, Buehler’s mom, gathered in her living room with more than a dozen family members and friends to root for their favorite big leaguer as he keyed the Dodgers’ victory and drew rave reviews from the ESPN-TV commentators.

Karen Walker confessed she’s “typically incredibly nervous” when her son takes the mound, but she had a different feeling on Monday.

“Today I’ve got this weird, unusual peace about it,” she said during the early innings. “What has happened in this last year has been unbelievable, and everybody in this room and across this city has been part of helping make Walker what he is. So today, whether he wins or loses, it’s like a celebration of what’s been a great season.”

Buehler, who turned 24 this summer, is establishing himself as one of the best young pitchers in the game. That’s why the Dodgers held off starting him in Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Giants so that he could go against the Rockies in Monday’s division tiebreaker.

Walker Buehler, a 2012 Henry Clay grad, has had a standout rookie season.

Buehler responded with another strong showing. In 13 starts since the All-Star break, he’s posted an earned run average of just over 2.00. In two outings against the Rockies in the last few weeks, he’s allowed no runs, 4 hits and had 15 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings.

For the season, the 6-foot-2, 175-pound rookie right-hander is 8-5 with a 2.62 ERA and 151 K’s in 137 1/3 innings.

Among those attending Monday’s watch party were three men who influenced Buehler’s baseball development: his grandfather, Dave Walker, whom he calls “Papa”; Judge Laurance VanMeter, who coached him in Eastern Little League at Ecton Park, and Ben Shaffar, his pitching coach during his high school days at Henry Clay.

“Papa”, who taught Walker to throw with an over-the-top motion at an early age, said it’s “phenomenal” to see his grandson pitching in the major leagues. “It’s hard to believe, actually.”

VanMeter could see Buehler’s talent early on when he coached him his first few years with the Phillies in Eastern Little League.

“After all-stars one year, he looked at me and said, ‘Judge, I’m going to stick to lacrosse,’” VanMeter recalled. “I told him, ‘You better make sure you’re one great lacrosse player because you have a gift from God to play baseball that you shouldn’t give up lightly.”

Buehler stuck with baseball, and as a 12-year-old set an Eastern Little League record with 130 strikeouts in a season.

Walker Buehler as an Eastern Little Leaguer.

“I could tell this kid had talent,” VanMeter said. “I thought he’d be a really good high school pitcher. Then he just kept developing.

“I take full credit because I didn’t mess him up!” VanMeter added with a laugh.

Shaffar, a former University of Kentucky pitcher who played for several years in the minors, took Buehler under his wing when he got to Henry Clay.

Buehler, who was a slight 6-1, 160-pounder in high school, had a preternatural ability to throw hard. But he had much more than that going for him.

“I could tell he had all the tools, the discipline, and the innate competitiveness,” Shaffar said. “He had four pitches he could throw for strikes. His velocity was already showing, so I thought once he matured and got stronger, he could consistently throw in the low to mid-90s and he could pitch in the major leagues for a long time.

“What I didn’t see coming was this 95 to 100 mph velocity he has now.”

After his senior season (2012) at Henry Clay, Buehler was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 14th round, but he chose instead to go to Vanderbilt.

As a sophomore, he helped the Commodores win an NCAA championship. As a junior, he helped them to an NCAA runner-up finish.

Buehler then turned professional after being selected by the Dodgers in the first round of the 2015 draft.

He had Tommy John surgery soon after that, but the Dodgers never lost confidence that he had the makings of a future ace.

Buehler made his major league debut in September, 2017, with a two-inning relief appearance against the Rockies.

It was a memorable moment for his biggest fans who made the trip to Los Angeles.

“We were all there,” Karen Walker said. “His dad’s family. My mom and dad. Our friends. It was surreal. It was amazing.

“After he got his first strikeout (Charlie Blackmon was the victim), all of Chavez Ravine started chanting, ‘Wal-ker Bueh-ler! Wal-ker Bue-hler’! I didn’t realize what they were doing at first but then somebody tapped me on the elbow and said, ‘Karen, do you hear what they’re yelling?’ I got goosebumps all over. I can’t put it into words. It was just so awesome to see his dream come true right before my eyes.

“It’s been quite a ride since Ecton Park.”

Buehler hasn’t forgotten his roots.

Jon Woodall, president of Eastern Little League, said Buehler has dropped by Ecton Park more than once, most recently during this summer’s major league all-star break.

“He came by the park and talked to all the boys,” Woodall said. “He’s such a great role model for them.”

When Leighton Harris broke Buehler’s Eastern Little League strikeout record this summer, Buehler sent him a game ball along with congratulations.

To mark Buehler’s trip to the NL playoffs (the Dodgers host the Braves on Thursday), a group of Eastern Little Leaguers made a video this week, saluting him. The video will be shared on MLB’s social media.

Lexington has produced its share of major leaguers, a list that includes current (and recent) players Chaz Roe (Lafayette), Trevor Gott (Tates Creek), A.J. Ellis (Paul Dunbar), Ben Revere (Lexington Catholic), Robbie Ross (Lexington Christian), Nick Maronde (Lexington Catholic) and Austin Kearns (Lafayette).

But it’s still a long shot for any kid to grow up and make it to The Show, a fact not lost on Karen Walker.

“I never knew this could happen,” she said. “I was a single mom with this ballplayer kid, and people were telling me he was good, but I didn’t know how good. When I first took him to Perfect Game to be assessed, I didn’t know if he was D-I, D-II or D-III. Honestly, it wasn’t until everybody started moving over at Legends stadium to watch him, and they were like, ‘Hey, this kid is something special.’

“I already knew he was special; I just didn’t know it was baseball.”

More than a dozen family members and friends gathered at Karen Walker’s home in Lexington on Monday to watch ESPN’s telecast of the Dodgers’ victory over the Rockies.



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