Theories vary as to the cause of the fall, though offseason surgery on his right shoulder — the one with which he leads when he hits — seems a likely contributor. Still, no one thing seemed able to fully explain how a former NL MVP could look so lost at home plate that he managed a .165 batting average in 95 games this season. At times, he fell out of the starting lineup.
But Saturday night in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, it was Bellinger’s double with two men on that broke the game open in the top of the sixth inning — an opposite field shot to left center that came after Bellinger had been 2 for 53 with 25 strikeouts against the 2021 San Francisco Giants to that point. His swing was one of the biggest blows in what appeared to be a teamwide resuscitation, one that saw struggling staples like Chris Taylor and A.J. Pollock chip in, too.
“It was a huge hit. I think it was a big weight lifted off his shoulders,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. "Hopefully, like our entire offense, we can take that momentum and take it to Game 3.”
The Dodgers do not need Bellinger to recover his MVP form to beat the Giants in the NLDS, which is tied at a game apiece after the Dodgers’ 9-2 win Saturday. They need more from the bottom of their order, which had been quiet to this point in the NLDS. They need more from their left-handed hitters, like Bellinger, who can offer some balance to a heavily right-handed lineup missing one of its key left-handed stars.
All-star first baseman Max Muncy dislocated his elbow during the last week of the season, an injury that will keep him out of the Dodgers’ lineup until the World Series at the absolute earliest. With him went the Dodgers’ most productive hitter: The 31-year-old led the Dodgers in OPS, homers, walks and RBI.
Without Muncy, the dangerous parts of the Dodgers’ lineup are heavily right-handed. Bellinger, Corey Seager, and starter Julio Urías were the only lefties in the lineup against Giants starter Kevin Gausman Saturday night. Bellinger had the worst regular season average of the three.
The loss of Muncy feels particularly troublesome against San Francisco. No Dodger has done more damage to the Giants this year than Muncy, who produced a 1.056 on-base-plus-slugging and eight home runs in 78 plate appearances against them this year. Muncy was also the Dodgers’ most successful hitter against Gausman.
But in the second, when Gausman intentionally walked struggling A.J. Pollock to face the pitcher with two on and two out, it was Urías who somehow did what none of his teammates had been able to in the NLDS to that point: he provided a timely hit, a two-out single to right that scored a run and set up Betts to drive in another – just the second hit provided by the Dodgers’ six through nine hitters in 20 postseason innings to that point, just the third hit from a left-handed Dodger since the start of the wild card game.
Gausman settled in after the Dodgers scored those runs, retiring 10 straight batters as he ended the fifth inning. Kapler elected to let Gausman hit for himself in the bottom of that inning, meaning he would return to the mound to face the Dodgers’ 3, 4, and 5 hitters for a third time in the sixth. Trea Turner started the sixth with a double into the left field corner, and it seemed perhaps that Kapler had pushed his luck — and his starter — too far. Gausman walked Will Smith two batters later to put two on with one out. Kapler came to get him. A would-be rally was in the hands of the bottom of the Dodgers order, which has struggled to hold onto them lately.
But Taylor walked to load the bases, “setting the table,” as Bellinger put it, by loaded the bases and forcing him to simplify his focus on getting a run in somehow with a deep flyball. He did that and more with the deep drive to the gap.
“Obviously, it felt pretty good,” said Bellinger, who had just nine doubles during the regular season.
“Cody Bellinger hasn’t been at his best, I’m sure he’s acknowledged that,” Giants Manager Gabe Kapler said. “But at the same time, he’s incredibly talented and gifted as an athlete, and you know that he’s always dangerous.”
Bellinger has, indeed, acknowledged his struggles. But over the last few days, he insisted he has been feeling better at the plate lately. Saturday, he went so far as to say he isn’t even frustrated with his season, and didn’t snip when a reporter asked him how he’s been handling the constant questioning about what went wrong.
“I get asked the question and I answer it,” Bellinger told a reporter who asked how he was handling all those questions. He didn’t seem agitated. He seemed optimistic. His manager was more direct in his assessment of Bellinger’s struggles.
“If we’re going to swing at balls down below [the zone], it doesn’t matter what kind of mechanics you have,” Roberts said before the game, using “we” to soften what was an otherwise unfiltered assessment of his 26-year-old former MVP. Bellinger struck out three times around that double, twice on pitches low in the zone. But his fellow bottom-of-the-order Dodgers seemed to come to life around him. Pollock and Taylor chipped in two hits apiece.
As for Bellinger’s big swing, Roberts didn’t draw too many conclusions about how it could help Bellinger’s trajectory just yet. But, he admitted, “mentally, I don’t see how it can hurt.”
It was Bellinger, remember, who walked ahead of Taylor’s walk-off homer in the Wild Card game on Wednesday. The Dodgers are 2-0 this postseason when he reaches base. They have not won when he doesn’t, minuscule though the sample may be.