This is what the proverbial fork in the road actually looks like, a weekend series in the middle of the country in the middle of the season.
Games like this will add up and determine where Cody Bellinger is headed, on the path back to stardom or down to somewhere considerably less glamorous.
The good nights have become more frequent for Bellinger over the last month and a half, his production starting to mirror that of his record-breaking rookie season last year with the Dodgers. But this is only a start.
“I wouldn’t say I figured it out,” Bellinger said. “I wish I figured it out.”
It’s simple, really. Pitchers have adjusted how they pitch to him. He has to counter.
The results were mixed over the Dodgers’ three games against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. He tripled, walked and scored a run in the Dodgers’ 11-2 victory in the series finale Sunday. In the previous two games, he was a combined one for nine with five strikeouts.
A first baseman and outfielder, Bellinger is a former All-Star at 23 and that’s what he’ll be for the remainder of his career if he fails to win the game of cat-and-mouse against opposing pitchers. Outmaneuver them and he can become the player he envisions he can become, a future All-Star, maybe even a future most valuable player.
“Absolutely, I think I could potentially be that guy,” he said.
He is batting a modest .244 and his 17 home runs have him well behind the pace he was on when he blasted a National League rookie record 39 in 132 games, but his confidence is founded on what he has done in the last seven-plus weeks.
In the 56 games Bellinger played before June 1, he was batting .232 with eight home runs and had an on-base percentage of .303. In the 42 games since, he is hitting .265 with nine home runs and has an OBP of .361, which is even higher than it was last season.
“This whole year’s been a learning curve for me, kind of what works for me and what doesn’t work for me with my swing,” Bellinger said. “I’m just trying to learn about everything while trying to compete.”
Temporarily, at least, he’s winning the game of adjustments.
“Just the way he’s handled this adversity has really shown me a lot,” manager Dave Roberts said.
Bellinger began the season knowing opposing pitchers would look to exploit weaknesses they discovered last year, in particular his problems dealing with the combination of elevated fastballs and outside breaking balls.
“I knew I was on people’s radar now,” he said. “I wasn’t just the new guy coming up where they’re trying to figure me out. They already knew my holes.”
He also figured it would be hard to duplicate what he did last season.
“I was realistic about it,” he said. “For people to expect me to hit that again, to do what I did, it would be really cool if I did, but it’s hard to do.”
He was batting .280 at the end of April, but had only three home runs. The low point came in May, when he batted .180 over the month.
With encouragement from veteran teammates such as Matt Kemp and Justin Turner, Bellinger said he was able to maintain confidence that he would hit again.
“I’m not going to let, literally, three bad weeks change my whole mentality about it,” he said.
But his frustration mounted.
“I was just missing a lot of balls in May and I couldn’t figure out why,” Bellinger said.
Bellinger found a mentor in Kemp, developing a relationship with him that was similar to the one he enjoyed last year with the since-departed Andre Ethier.
“Kemp’s been awesome,” Bellinger said. “He’s been through it all. He’s been through success, he’s been through some failure. He’s been a vocal guy, kind of keeping me on my toes. Kind of like Andre a little bit. A lot of smack talking, but all positivity, you know?”
The advice Kemp offered him ranged from mental to technical, with Kemp encouraging him to bend his knees a little more so he could be in a more athletic position when hitting.
“I made small mechanical adjustments to allow me to not miss those pitches so I don’t get into bad hitter’s counts quickly,” Bellinger said.
The change could also improve Bellinger’s already-vaunted power.
“That’s where all the pop comes from, your legs,” Kemp said. “Just imagine him using his legs with as much pop as he has, he’s going to have even more.”
The alteration had the added benefit of minimizing Bellinger’s head movement, thereby helping him better see the ball. Before June 1, he walked in only 9% of his plate appearances. Since then, that figure has increased to 13%.