- Senior Writer for ESPN The Magazine
- Columnist for ESPN.com
- Author of five books (3 NYT best-sellers)
SAN FRANCISCO — For a brief, fleeting moment — the amount of time it took San Francisco Giants reliever Dominic Leone’s sixth-inning fastball to travel from his hand to the plate — Cody Bellinger looked like the guy who was the 2019 National League MVP.
Bellinger was balanced and quick, two elements of successful hitting that have eluded him all season, and the result was a two-run double to left-center that put the Dodgers ahead 4-1 and set the stage for what became a 9-2 win in Game 2 of the NLDS.
Bellinger hit .165 with a .542 OPS this season, unfathomably bad numbers for a player who hit .305 with 47 homers and a 1.035 OPS in his MVP season. Injuries were a major factor; he played just 95 games this year, and a season-long shoulder injury limited his swing coverage and eroded his confidence.
When he wasn’t lunging at off-speed pitches in the dirt, he was overstriding and jamming himself on fastballs inside. He has been so bad for so long that Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has had to answer repeated questions about why he continues to put Bellinger in the lineup.
And then Leone came into the game to replace starter Kevin Gausman, walked Chris Taylor to load the bases and fired a get-it-over fastball that Bellinger laced to the gap in left-center. The look on his face as he pulled up at second seemed like something from a ’19 highlight reel.
“Mentally, I don’t see how it could hurt him,” Roberts said, laughing. “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.”
The Dodgers 6-7-8 hitters were 0 for 9 with 5 strikeouts in Game 1 but 5 for 10 with two walks and four RBIs in Game 2. A.J. Pollock and Bellinger were the main culprits in Game 1, choosing to swing pretty much regardless of the ball’s flight.
Bellinger struck out three times in Game 2, but Pollock had two hits and followed Bellinger’s two-run double with one of his own, effectively ending the competitive portion of the evening.
“When you put up nine runs, obviously everyone’s going to feel like your approach is good,” Pollock said. “If you put up zero, nobody’s going to like it.”
A long season is like fluorescent lighting, harsh and unforgiving, exposing every flaw. Once teams sensed Bellinger’s fly-rod swing couldn’t adjust to velocity, he got nothing but high fastballs he couldn’t catch up to and low breaking pitches he couldn’t reach.
The Dodgers have insisted the issue isn’t so much Bellinger’s mechanics or health but his approach, which is another way of saying his mindset, which is another way of saying he appears — with the exception of one at-bat in Game 2 — to have none of the confidence that made him the 2019 MVP.
Bellinger has always shown a level of maturity uncommon to his age — still just 26. Asked before the game how he deals with all the analysis of his swing, Bellinger said, “Well, how I’m doing it right now. I get asked the question, and I answer it.”
Asked where he is right now, Bellinger said, “I feel 100 percent, you know? I don’t know how my body is, but I feel really good.”
Bellinger went into cliché mode after the game, choosing to deflect talk of a personal renaissance by speaking about doing his job and playing to the situation, which could have been the three strikeouts talking. Still, with one swing in Game 2, when another strikeout would have led to more disgusted bat flips on the way back to the dugout and more questions about his utility as an everyday player, Bellinger put a swing on the ball.
One swing, but still — that managed to change the present and evoke the past.
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