If Cody Bellinger is finally, reasonably healing from everything that turned his regular season to waste, the timing couldn’t be better. For his Dodgers, and for himself.
First, he set up Chris Taylor’s wild card game-winning two run homer with a sharp theft of second base last Tuesday. Now, in division series Game Two, Bellinger started putting the game out of the Giants’ reach Saturday night with a sixth-inning, two-run double off Giants reliever Dominic Leone.
On a night that the Dodgers’ bats re-awakened following their half-asleep Game One loss in San Francisco—even starting pitcher Julio Urias managed to join the fun—Bellinger wasn’t exactly the most prolific Dodger at the plate, just the most important one.
With Trea Turner on second after a leadoff double lined down the third base line, and Will Smith walking his way aboard for first and second, Giants manager Gabe Kapler lifted his starting pitcher Kevin Gausman for Leone. Leone walked Taylor in part because plate umpire Angel Hernandez—what a surprise—called what should have been strike three ball three, on a pitch that hit the upper outside corner squarely enough.
Bellinger checked in at the plate next. With the kind of struggling regular season he had, he wasn’t about to look the proverbial gift horse in the proverbial mouth. He drove Leone’s first service to the back of center field, bounding off the wall, sending Turner and Smith home with Taylor having to stop at third.
Leone barely had time to regroup from that blow when A.J. Pollock lined his next pitch into left to send Taylor and Bellinger home while he bellyflopped his way into second safely for the double. Leone got the final two outs getting Urias’s pinch hitter Gavin Lux to ground out to second and Mookie Betts to fly out to center, but the four-run sixth held up toward the 9-2 Dodger win.
Pollock and Taylor collaborated on the Dodgers’ first run of the game in the top of the second, Taylor lining a one-out double into the gap in left center and Pollock going from 2-0 to a free pass to enable Gausman to get rid of Urias the easy way. Except that Urias refused to cooperate.
Something of an outlier among pitchers at the plate (he actually hit .203 in the regular season, 93 points above pitchers at the plate overall), Urias lined one to right to send Taylor home with the first Dodger run. Betts then lined a base hit to left to send Pollock home for the 2-0 Dodger lead.
Except for Donovan Solano’s one-out sacrifice fly in the bottom of the second, and Brandon Crawford singling home late-game entry Lamonte Wade, Jr. in the bottom of the sixth, the Giants had no answer for the Dodgers’ revival at the plate Saturday night.
The Dodgers weren’t about to provide the Giants answers, either. As if to slam a pair of exclamation points down on the salient point, Smith hit reliever Zack Littell’s first pitch of the top of the eighth into a voluptuous parabola that landed a few rows into the left field seats, and pinch-hitter Matt Beaty (for Dodger reliever Corey Knebel) plus Corey Seager added a pair of RBI singles before the inning expired.
But even though Bellinger struck out three times otherwise, that game-breaking two-run double in the sixth trained most eyes back upon him. He looked at last like the 2019 National League Most Valuable Player again, not like the guy who had everyone not looking deep thinking he spent this season sinking into oblivion with a ten-ton weight strapped to his ankle.
All season long, Bellinger tried to remake his swing to use the entire field while his body refused to cooperate. He’d had shoulder surgery last off-season, after injuring the shoulder first fielding several grounders and then celebrating his home run in Game Seven of last year’s National League Championship Series. Then, he missed the first eight weeks of this season after a leg fracture when he was spiked on a play at first base.
He also suffered a hamstring injury and, in September, a non-displacing rib fracture when he collided with Lux on a play in the outfield.
If you don’t think batterings like that can drain a fellow at the plate, you probably haven’t tried playing professional baseball. Bellinger’s tenacity in trying to play through or around those injuries is as admirable as the reality of his futility at the plate before healing completely from those injuries is deplorable.
Especially when the shoulder continued putting limits on his swing, opposing pitchers saw and exploited the resultant inability to catch up to rising fastballs or reach diver-down breaking balls, and Bellinger’s confidence eroded little by little as the season went forward.
Whether manager Dave Roberts was worse continuing to run him up there than Bellinger was in being so stubborn, despite the shoulder not recovering completely from that off-season surgery, it told you how deep this year’s Dodgers really are that they won 106 regular season games despite Bellinger’s injury-driven deflation.
Now, Bellinger could stand on second base in the sixth with a look akin to the many he had after big hits in his MVP season. Now, Roberts could laugh his fool head off trying to explain it postgame: “Mentally, I don’t see how it could hurt him. There can only be upside. He’s wanted to use the big part of the field, and for him to get rewarded was huge. I think there was a big weight lifted off his shoulders.”
If pun was intended, it wasn’t exactly the smartest or cleverest. It was difficult not to think that Bellinger should have had more extended recovery from that shoulder surgery, taken a somewhat extended spring training, and returned in May at fullest possible strength.
It was between sorrowful and infuriating to see Bellinger playing through the short recovery and subsequent injuries and listening to the witless writing him off as just another slumper who suddenly didn’t know what he was doing.
He’s not quite out of the wilderness yet. But watching him drive that Game Two-breaking double gave you almost as much hope as it seems to have given him. “I feel 100 percent, you know?” he said postgame. “I don’t know how my body is, but I feel really good.”
What he did Saturday night was enough to leave the Giants nursing a serious Belli-ache and the Dodgers feeling even better about moving the series tied at one to Dodger Stadium for Game Three.
Even if they might wonder privately which Max Scherzer will turn up on the mound. Will that someone be Max the Knife? Will he be the tired veteran who surrendered ten runs in his final two regular-season starts, before fighting on fumes to pitch one-run, four-and-a-third innings’ baseball in the wild card game? The answer comes Monday.