The Dodgers give the Giants a Game Two Belli-ache

Cody Bellinger

Cody Bellinger, hitting the Game Two-breaking two-run double in the sixth inning Saturday night.

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.

It’s a Gaus, Gaus, Gaus—sort of

Kevin Gausman

Kevin Gausman isn’t exactly swinging into McCovey Cove here—and he needed a little help from his friend sliding home head first to win Friday night.

Look, I don’t want to be a spoil sport. OK, maybe I do. A little. But anyone getting any ideas about celebrating Giants pitcher Kevin Gausman’s game-winning pinch loft Friday night as evidence against the universal designated hitter . . .

Seriously?

It’s not as though it meant the National League West for the re-tread Giants. They’d already nailed a postseason berth days before. It’s not as though Gausman was the best pinch-hitting option available to manager Gabe Kapler in the bottom of the eleventh with the bases loaded, one out, and relief pitcher Camilo Doval due up.

And, it’s not as though Braves reliever Jacob Webb threw him something with a nasty enough dance to the plate that the biggest boppers in the National League would have had trouble keeping time and step with it.

So come on. Let’s have a little fun with the home crowd in Oracle Park booing the hapless Gausman—who’s actually in the back of this year’s Cy Young Award conversation, having a splendid season on the mound (he woke up this morning with a 2.78 ERA, a 2.88 fielding-independent pitching rate, a 4.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a 10.7 strikeouts-per-nine rate)—because they had no clue Kapler was clean out of position players to send to the plate.

Let’s have a little more fun than that with Webb and Gausman midget-mud-wrestling the count from 1-2 to a full count, because Webb couldn’t find the zone with a search party and a bloodhound and because the Braves handed Evan Longoria and Donovan Solano free passes to load the pads in the first place.

Let’s have a little more fun than that with the Oracle crowd going from lusty booing to standing-O cheering after Webb pumped and delivered a 3-2 meatball that had so much of the zone a real hitter could have turned it into a walk-off grand slam while looking over his shoulder at Brandon Belt in the Giants’ on-deck circle.

But let’s give ourselves a reality check. Gausman’s loft to Braves right fielder Joc Pederson didn’t exactly push Pederson back to the edge of the warning track. It landed in Pederson’s glove while he took a couple of steps forward in more or less shallow positioning.

Shallow enough that the game missed going to the twelfth by about a foot south, on what might have been an inning-ending double play. Except that Brandon Crawford—who’d opened the inning as the free cookie on second and took third on Webb’s wild pickoff throw—had to beat Pederson’s throw home by sliding head first to the plate.

Crawford would have been dead on arrival if he hadn’t taken the dive and traveled beneath Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud whirling around for the tag that would have gotten the veteran Giants shortstop squarely even if he’d dropped into a standard slide. Even Gausman knows he had a better chance at breaking the land speed record aboard a Segway than there was of him walking it off.

“More than anything,” he said in the middle of his did-I-do-that postgame, “I was trying to not look ridiculous, just take good swings, swing at strikes. Obviously I never would have thought I would have got in that situation coming to the ballpark today.”

Not with a .184/.216/.184 slash line entering Friday night’s follies. Not with a lifetime .036 hitting average entering this season, despite having a reputation as the Giants pitcher with the best bat control at the plate. Not with tending to go the other way when he does connect on those very rare occasions. “Um, well, that’s the first time I’ve pulled a ball,” he said post-game. “Like, in the big leagues.”

Thanks to the rule that says a sacrifice fly doesn’t count as an official at-bat, Gausman’s loft actually cost him four points on his on-base percentage.

The game got to the extras in the first place because, after d’Arnaud himself hit one into the left field seats with two aboard and one out to overthrow a 4-2 Giants lead in the top of the ninth, another Giants pinch-hitter—Solano, hitting for earlier pinch-hitter/outfield insertion Mike Yastrzemski—hit a two-out, 2-2 service from Braves reliever Will Smith only a few feet away from where d’Arnaud’s blast landed.

After not having swung the bat in a major league plate appearance in three weeks, thanks to a turn on the COVID list, Solano at least entered a record book. His game-tyer meant the Giants have hit a franchise-record sixteen pinch-hit bombs this season, and possibly counting.

Gausman, on the other hand, is only the third pitcher in the Giants’ San Francisco era to win a game with a pinch swing. He joins Don Robinson (bases-loaded pinch single, 1990) and Madison Bumgarner (pinch single, 2018) without a base hit for his effort.

The way the Giants have played this year, cobbled together like six parts Clyde Crashcup and half a dozen parts Rube Goldberg, nobody puts anything past them now.

Gausman is respected as one of the nicer guys in the game. Before Friday night’s contest the Bay Area chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America handed him their Bill Rigney Award for cooperation with the Bay Area press. “He’s been terrific, including during some trying times with his family,” said the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Susan Slusser announcing the award presentation.

But he didn’t really do any anti-DH people any real favours after all. He hasn’t augmented any legitimate case for keeping any pitchers swinging the bat any further than this year. The best thing you can say for his Friday night flog is that he connected. He ought to buy Crawford steaks for the rest of the season for sliding astutely.

This year’s pitchers at the plate woke up this morning with a whopping collective .110/.150/.142 slash line and an absolutely jaw-dropping .291 OPS. They’re also leading the league in wasted outs (388 sacrifice bunts), with the next-most-prolific such among the position players being the shortstops. (55.)

Now, for the money shot. Belt is one of the National League’s more consistent hitters this season. He took a .942 OPS into Friday night’s game. He whacked a two-run homer to vaporise a Giants deficit in the first inning. With one out, would any sane manager ask a pitcher to do anything more than stand at the plate like a mannequin, with a bat like that waiting on deck to hit with ducks on the pond?

Kapler’s living the proverbial charmed life. As a player, he was a member of the 2004 Red Sox who finally won their first World Series since the Spanish flu pandemic. He wasn’t exactly one of those Red Sox’s big bats, but he was a late-Game Four insertion as a pinch runner, with then-manager Terry Francona letting him hang around in right field as the Red Sox nailed the Series sweep in the ninth.

As the Dodgers’ director of player development in 2015, Kapler got away with a feeble response at best, when a couple of Dodger minor leaguers were accused plausibly of videotaping an assault by two young women against a third, plus sexual misconduct involving a player’s hand down the victim’s panties. The team elected not to report it to the commissioner’s office or to the police—and he didn’t go over their heads to do so, either.

Then, Kapler was run off the Phillies bridge because, in two seasons, he couldn’t marry his analytical bent to the live situations in front of him and the Phillies ended up three games under .500 total with him on their bridge.

Now, he has the bridge of the National League West leaders fighting tooth, fang, claw, and charm against those pesky Dodgers with a two-game division lead and fourteen games left. He’d better not get too comfortable emptying his bench again any time soon. His pitchers are only hitting .081 this season. And they won’t always have Crawford on third to bail them out in a pinch.