It was the matchup the Dodgers wanted. Bellinger had remarkable numbers this season — .305 batting average, 47 home runs and 115 RBI — and they heightened against right-handed pitchers. If Bellinger could manage a base hit, the runner from second could score and he’d put the Dodgers on the cusp of a comeback to crush the Nationals in Game 2 of the National League Division Series.
But he didn’t. Hudson threw Bellinger one pitch — a 97-mph fastball belt-high and inside — and Bellinger popped out as Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon made a diving, sno-cone sno-catch in foul territory. Hudson navigated later drama to secure a 4-2 victory and even the series. The Bellinger out, though, meant more. It prevented a jam from worsening earlier and signified that the Nationals’ approach against the 24-year-old star is working. They’ve limited the most fearsome slugger in the middle of a stacked lineup to 0-for-6 with two walks and four strikeouts this series.
The Nationals struggled against Bellinger earlier this season — he had nine hits in 23 at-bats and scored five runs — and their approach appears similar. They’re following the scouting report, which is to throw low and away, where he sees more than a quarter of his pitches and his numbers dip. But Hudson’s pitch did not go there; it was either a mistake or a calculated risk. It rode inside toward a spot in the zone where Bellinger makes solid contact but doesn’t usually generate too much power (most of his home runs have come middle-away and belt-high). It was in a portion of the strike zone the Nationals hadn’t attacked almost at all, and perhaps the jam and weak pop-out were the result of some surprise.
While the plan is working, it appears Bellinger is helping it along. In the seventh inning, the Nationals brought in left-handed reliever Sean Doolittle to face Bellinger. Doolittle pounded Bellinger low and away, just as Patrick Corbin did in Game 1, sometimes making competitive pitches but mostly leaving them well outside the zone (two walks). But even when Corbin and Doolittle missed — fastballs over the heart of the plate, in locations and at velocities Bellinger mashes — he couldn’t do much more than foul them away. The last Doolittle fastball, 96 mph and dead center, Bellinger foul-tipped into the catcher’s mitt for strike three.
These at-bats weren’t the result of the Nationals exploiting lefty-on-lefty advantages. After Bellinger struggled against southpaws last season, he focused on them in the offseason so opponents couldn’t hammer the mismatch. He raised his OPS this season against them to .983, nearly the same as his OPS against right-handers (1.063). It just for some reason hasn’t translated to this series.
A reporter asked Manager Dave Roberts whether Bellinger was fatigued. The manager shot the theory down; his star felt fine after 156 regular-season games. He explained this slow start was less due to strategy or struggles and cited the dominance of both starters — Corbin in Game 1 and Stephen Strasburg in Game 2 — as affecting Bellinger like the rest of the lineup.
Yet there’s an increased sense of urgency around Bellinger. He’s struggled in October before. His previous two postseason pushes with the Dodgers, which went all the way to World Series, gave him more than 120 plate appearances but left him with a .565 on-base-plus-slugging-percentage — nearly 400 points lower than his regular-season total. Roberts didn’t want to hear any of it.
“He's seeing the baseball well,” Roberts said. “For me, it's too small of a sample.”
Most of Bellinger’s plate appearances in this series make sense. Corbin wanted to pitch around Bellinger twice, and he did, and when he went after the hitter, his slider made it difficult because Bellinger has struggled against breaking pitches this season (.244 batting average). Strasburg did the same with his curveball and change-up. Doolittle’s fastball isn’t a normal fastball and looks like it’s breaking up to hitters. The only at-bat that remains confusing was in the seventh inning of Game 1.
The Nationals were trying to hold a two-run deficit and, with two on and one out, Nationals Manager Dave Martinez summoned reliever Fernando Rodney. It didn’t make sense at the time because Rodney had the second-worst OPS allowed of any option Martinez had in the bullpen, but it looked smart when Rodney struck out Bellinger on six pitches.
The reliever threw exclusively fastballs (around 91 mph) and change-ups (around 85 mph). It was not overwhelming and, as Max Muncy proved with a two-run single later, not particularly effective against left-handers. Yet the two best pitches Bellinger got to hit — a fastball and a change-up, both middle-away and belt-high — he fouled off. He later watched strike three, a 91-mph fastball slightly lower than where Hudson threw his. The at-bat didn’t follow an apparent plan, but the Nationals didn’t complain. For a team doing everything it can to get through bullpen innings as is, for a team somehow navigating one of the game’s best hitters just when they need to, sometimes the best plan is whatever works.
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