HOUSTON—The smile on Cody Bellinger’s face could have lit Minute Maid Park. We know now that Los Angeles would win Game 4 of the World Series, 6–2, to turn it into a best of three, but at that moment all he knew was that he could breathe again.
Bellinger had looked like a rookie all series, chasing breaking balls at his shins and uncharacteristically rushing plays in the field. He was hitless in 13 World Series at-bats with eight strikeouts. Reporters had begun asking Dodgers manager Dave Roberts when it was time to consider a day off. Bellinger admitted after Game 3 that, for the first time, he had felt out of place on a baseball field. So when he found himself chugging toward second base in the seventh inning of Game 4, with his team down 1–0 on the night and 2–1 in the series, he almost couldn’t believe where he was.
“It’s a miracle!” he gasped when he got there. “F---!”
It sort of was. The most reliable way to get Bellinger out this season was to throw him a pitch high and away. The best way to induce a swing and miss was to fool him with a curveball. And that’s when he was hitting well! In Games 2 and 3 of this series, the 22-year-old presumptive NL Rookie of the Year—who set a league record for home runs by a freshman, with 39; who made the All-Star Game despite spending most of April in Triple A; whose Dodgers played .700 ball in his starts—seemed to have no idea where the hooks thrown by Astros starters Justin Verlander and especially Lance McCullers were going.
So when a thus far–dominant Charlie Morton missed his spot and dropped a curveball on the upper outside corner, he should have gotten away with it. Instead Bellinger laced the pitch the other way, where it bounced off the corner of the Crawford Boxes in leftfield. Bellinger jokingly motioned for the ball, as if he wanted a keepsake of his first hit in nine days. The Los Angeles dugout erupted.
His teammates knew how hard he had worked to emerge from his slump, hitting the weight room before games, adjusting his mentality in the batting cage and poring over advanced statistics in the hope of figuring out what was wrong with him. They mostly tried to keep him loose the past few days, offering the occasional word of encouragement or ignoring his struggles completely. Thirty-two-year-old third baseman Justin Turner—himself 2-for-the-Series but taking good at-bats—watched him take cuts in the cage and reminded him not to overthink it. “Don’t try,” the red-bearded Yoda said. “Just do.”
Outfielder Andre Ethier, 35, who is Bellinger’s self-assigned mentor, took a different tack. “You might as well go up there without a bat,” he teased him. “You have just as much chance of getting a hit.”
Bellinger’s luck started to turn Saturday. The team had just suffered consecutive crushing losses—an 11-inning slugfest at home, then a sloppy mess that began when starter Yu Darvish was pulled after five outs and only got worse from there—yet support staff who rode the last bus to the ballpark late this afternoon noticed the energy in the clubhouse. No one seemed to be glumly scrolling through Instagram. Players were engaged and discussing their return to Los Angeles using the future tense: We will win this at home. They gathered in an impromptu huddle in the dugout just before first pitch and took turns speaking about their belief in one another.
Bellinger fed off his teammates’ confidence. By the time strength coach Brandon McDaniel arrived at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, the first baseman was already in the weight room, doing his usual full-body lift. McDaniel was impressed. “Most 22-year-olds would be checked out [of that] by August,” he explains. He chatted with Bellinger, who is often so relaxed that Ethier jokes about needing to remind him to wake up in time for the game to start, and was relieved to see that he seemed more resolute than frustrated. Even the chest punch Bellinger and McDaniel usually exchange just before first pitch seemed more forceful than usual.
But the real breakthrough had probably come an hour and a half earlier. Bellinger usually just enjoys batting practice, lofting balls in the air and trying to put on a show. As his group took the field Saturday, he thought about how he often sees Ethier and second baseman Logan Forsythe using the session to drive pitches to the opposite field. I want to try that, Bellinger decided. He hit every ball the other way.
He could have tightened up when the game began. Morton flummoxed the Dodgers, retiring 14 straight after a leadoff single. He did not walk a batter and went even to a three-ball count only twice through six. Bellinger lined out to left—progress—and then struck out swinging—not—in his first two at-bats. Morton had not thrown a pitch in the top third of the strike zone before Bellinger saw him a third time. The situation was dire: Roberts had burned much of his bullpen the night before in relief of Darvish, and although starter Alex Wood had no-hit the Astros before allowing a sixth-inning home run, his velocity was down 3 mph and he was clearly playing with fire. If the Dodgers wasted a gutty outing like that from a guy who could just as easily have given up four runs … and the offense could not capitalize on a tiring Morton …
“There’s certain players that just have that innate ability to be in that spot,” said Roberts after the game. “And Cody, you can see the heartbeat is really good."
Morton’s night was done after that double. Forsythe drove Bellinger in—the Dodgers’ first hit with runners in scoring position of the series—and suddenly it was again possible to see through the fog of the last two games to the team that looked like it would challenge the major league wins record.
Bellinger doubled again in the ninth, part of a five-run rally against the shaky Astros bullpen, and the Dodgers would need the cushion: Suddenly-mortal closer Kenley Jansen gave up a home run in the bottom of the ninth before inducing a game-ending flyout. But if the series has turned, it did so two innings earlier. The Dodgers’ rookie star has powered them all season, literally with his fluttering swing and figuratively with the almost childlike joy he takes in every moment. If that young man is back, this team can be as well.
It’s easy to overstate what one win means, but in this case it was as big as it seemed. Imagine if this game had gone the other way: The Astros are now 8–0 at home with a chance to clinch in Houston. The Dodgers throw ace Clayton Kershaw, but the Astros counter with Dallas Keuchel, who made two mistakes in six innings in Game 1. And even if Los Angeles wins Game 5, the team has no margin for error, needing to win three before Houston can win one.
Instead it’s a race to two. The Dodgers have home-field advantage and maybe the most dangerous slugger on either team. They can breathe again.