LOS ANGELES — All year, the Dodgers have been trying to get Cody Bellinger to stay in the strike zone. When he was hitting .152 in July. When he went 19 straight games without a walk in August and September. When he struck out eight times in 17 at bats in the National League Division Series.
So, naturally, when Atlanta reliever Luke Jackson threw a 97-mph fastball down the heart of the plate in the eighth inning of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, Bellinger swung through it. And when Jackson followed with a 96-mph fastball nearly a foot above the strike zone, Bellinger launched it 399 feet to save the Dodgers’ season.
“We were dead in the water,” L.A. manager Dave Roberts said afterward. “You could see it.”
Instead, Bellinger’s bomb scored three to tie the game. Three batters later, Mookie Betts doubled in the go-ahead run. The Dodgers won Game 3, 6–5. Instead of being one loss from winter, they are down two games to one. They are breathing what Betts called a sigh of relief. They are celebrating what Roberts called the biggest hit he could imagine. They are right back in it.
“Sad thing is I would do the same thing again,” Jackson said. “I was trying to throw a fastball up and away. I actually threw it better than I thought I threw it. Out of my hand, I was like, Oh, that's a ball. It's too high. And no, it wasn't too high. It was, you know, good player put a good swing on it. Pretty remarkable.”
Bellinger is a good player, as Betts reminded him in their postgame press conference. Bellinger was trying to explain what possessed him to swing at a pitch that was closer to his ears than it was to the strike zone.
“Honestly, for as weird as it was, I saw it,” he said. “I saw it and I just tried to put a good swing on it. It's just one of those things. Ball's coming in hard, some shadows you're dealing with, so I saw it well and I just tried to barrel it up, and I just tried to get Will [Smith] home. Like I said, just continue to barrel up the ball and pass the baton.”
Betts interjected, “Tell ’em, Belli. They're good, but you drive a Benz too.”
Bellinger laughed. “I do got a Benz,” he said.
He was not so cheerful a month ago, when he went 0-for-a-four-game series in St. Louis. “He was thinking, was he ever gonna get another hit?” Roberts said. He described that moment as “rock bottom.”
So Bellinger agreed to rethink his swing. The long, loopy stroke that had won him the NL MVP award in 2019 was missing too many pitches. He could not catch up to premium velocity, and he was getting fooled on balls outside the zone. At hitting coach Brant Brown’s suggestion, Bellinger lowered his hands and tried to simplify his motion.
“We just basically tried to put him in a position where he could kind of go straight to the ball,” Brown said. “I don't think it's going to wind up there for the rest of his career, but for where he's at right now, I just think it was an important change.”
On Tuesday, with two on and one out and the Dodgers down three, Bellinger tried to launch a slider into orbit. He tried to launch that first fastball into orbit. With two strikes, he widened his stance and shortened his swing and stopped trying to tie the game.
“In years past, with not having gone through the struggles, he might not have made that adjustment,” Roberts said.
Until Tuesday, Bellinger had seen 36 pitches that hard and that high in his career. He had never gotten a hit on one.
“To be honest, he wasn't trying to do too much,” said Brown. “He was really just trying to put the bat on the ball. And that's something that we talk about all year is like, you don't have to slug. You gotta have the hit tool first. And by being accurate and just trying to hit the ball hard, you’ll probably hit it far.”
Bellinger’s lost season helped the Dodgers find their way back into this series. It took nearly 10 minutes for the stadium to stop shaking. It may take longer for the relief to fade.
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