Cody Bellinger Comes Through

The struggling slugger erased a miserable season with one swing of the bat to send the Dodgers to a thrilling victory over the Giants in game 5 of the NLDS.

For six months, Cody Bellinger searched for his swing. On the Dodgers’ biggest night of the season, he found it.

In the top of the ninth inning of a 1-1 tie in a series that was knotted at two games a piece, Bellinger stepped up to the plate with one out, two runners on, and a chance to erase his lost season. He fell behind in the count 1-2 against Giants closer Camillo Doval, who hadn’t given up an earned run since May. I don’t know if Bellinger was thinking about how one good swing could make up for a season full of horrendous swings. I don’t know if he could feel the anxiety of millions of Dodger fans as he took a deep breath and choked up on his bat. And I have no idea how he was suddenly able to distinguish a fastball from a slider. Somehow, some way, he waited on that slider to get back near his hands and he whacked it to the grass past the Giants infield to score Justin Turner from second and give the Dodgers a lead they would not relinquish. He knew he had probably won the game immediately, too, as he pointed at his teammates in the Dodger dugout and screamed.

I wrote in my preview of this series that Bellinger pulling himself out of his offensive abyss was one of the five biggest keys that could swing the matchup in the Dodgers direction. The Dodgers had won 109 games this season as of yesterday, even though Bellinger’s .160 batting average hurt them more than his defense helped. But to beat another 109-win team in the Giants, the Dodgers needed the old Bellinger to show up. He did.

It was not a bigger hit than the homer he crushed to win the National League pennant last season. But it was a bigger hit for him personally, because now he knows he’s not broken beyond repair. And, it was a moral victory for all of us who are desperately trying to shake off a lonely and miserable 2021 as we gear up for the rest of our lives. Most of us will never know what it’s like to be a hero on a national stage. But we do know failure because we’re only human. That Bellinger hit was for all of us who did not live our best lives this year and still got up every day and did the best we could, hoping that things would turn around.

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Before the game even started the Dodgers gave fans a heart attack when they announced that Corey Knebel—not Julio UrÍas—would be the starting pitcher. The club added to fan angst when they brought Brusdar Graterol—not Julio Urías—into the game to follow Knebel in the second inning. Both pitchers got out of jams to toss scoreless innings, so all the hand wringing wound up being for naught.

I was surprised when Dave Roberts told the media he texted Gabe Kapler the night before game 5 to tell him Knebel was starting, so I texted another MLB manager to ask if he would have done the same. He said he absolutely would have, and that it’s a common courtesy that every manager is expected to abide by. I found that unwritten rule fascinating, especially because these days teams are trying to do whatever they can to gain a competitive advantage, including starting a reliever instead of a 20-game winner in an elimination game. Last night was one of the best baseball games I’ve ever seen, in part because it reminded me that for as much baseball as I’ve watched in my life I still have so much to learn.

Logan Webb was awesome, and I can’t say enough about how amazing it was that a 24-year-old kid held the Dodgers to just one run in this series over 14.2 innings. There’s no MVP award in division series’. But if there was one, Webb would have been the rare player to win it while playing for the losing team.

Cody Bellinger got the big hit, but Mookie Betts won that game by going 4-for-4 and scoring the first run. Back during spring training, Clayton Kershaw told me that Betts was the reason the Dodgers finally won the World Series last year. He’s already got two rings with two different teams, and I’m getting the distinct feeling it’s no coincidence his team is favored to win another championship.

I never understood why they call it a bullpen until I saw Max Scherzer warming up last night, grunting and kicking dirt like an actual bull. It’s not often that a player gets traded to a team in July and then becomes that club’s heartbeat. I have heard more than once that even playing catch with Scherzer is a nightmare because he never does anything halfway. After he recorded the final out he screamed so loud you could hear it on TV over the euphoria of Dodger fans at Oracle Park. Then his teammates ripped off his jersey and cap to reveal a man soaked with sweat on a chilly San Francisco evening. I knew when the Dodgers traded for him that he was one of the best pitchers in the world. I did not know that he was also the kind of guy who could power the entire team to victory with his energy alone. It was the first save of his professional career and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

The bad check swing call on Wilmer Flores to end the game stunk. There’s no way around it. I’ve been whining about check swings and how arbitrary they are for as long as I’ve understood the rules of baseball. Nobody knows what they are, and they’re not even defined in the MLB rulebook. They are also not reviewable. Wilmer Flores started a violent swing that I think fooled the first base umpire, then he was able to miraculously check it. But the umpire didn’t have the slow motion replay view that we all had, so Flores was called out. It was a bummer for Flores and also for Scherzer. Giants fans are mad because it robbed Flores of whatever chance he had to tie or win the game. Dodger fans are mad because the blown call takes away from one of the most impressive series wins in Dodger history. Nobody wins when an umpire blows a call like that, and I wish it hadn’t happened.

But it did, so the Dodgers are on to Atlanta where they will face a sneaky good Braves team. I’ll be back tomorrow with a preview, and we’ll also have another game thread tomorrow night. You guys have been awesome in those live chats, and I’m glad you seem to be enjoying them. Tell your friends! But for now, get some rest.