The price of a ticket in Dodger Stadium’s right-field pavilion included more than unlimited hot dogs and nachos Sunday. The home team’s most insatiable patrons were granted the opportunity to own an artifact from the one of the greatest opening acts in baseball history, prompting a couple of dozen fans in section 310 to desperately reach skyward toward the newest souvenir launched to their side of the wall by Cody Bellinger.
The home run was the 14th of the season for Bellinger and placed the 23-year-old first baseman in rarefied company. No player has started a season with more homers before May 1. The only with as many: Albert Pujols in 2006, Alex Rodriguez in 2007 and Christian Yelich this year.
Explaining how Bellinger is on a 76-homer pace after an entire month requires an examination of a later at-bat in the Dodgers’ 7-6 comeback victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Dodgers took a 6-5 lead in the seventh inning on a run-scoring single by the Max Muncy, and Bellinger was due up with runners on the corners. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called on left-handed reliever Francisco Liriano to pitch to the left-handed-hitting Bellinger.
Two pitches into the at-bat, Bellinger was down in the count, 0-2.
“Just touch it,” Bellinger recalled thinking.
He watched a couple of sliders sail by for balls. Then a fastball.
He fouled off a low and away full-count slider.
The next pitch was also a slider, but this one hovered over the plate. With a purposely shortened stroke, Bellinger redirected the pitch through the Pirates shifted infield. Joc Pederson scored, extending the Dodgers’ advantage to 7-5.
Manager Dave Roberts used a golf metaphor to describe not only that particular at-bat, but Bellinger’s maturation in general.
“There's a time to get big and try to go for the big homer or really drive the baseball,” Roberts said. “And there's also a time to use another club. I think that right now Cody has different clubs to use. When you get a tough left-on-left guy, you know he's in there to throw a slider, so to get big and try to hit a homer just doesn't make a lot of sense. Cody really understands that.”
The run batted in was Bellinger’s third of the game – he also had a sacrifice fly in the first inning – and major league-leading 36th of the season.
He also tops baseball in batting average (.427), runs (30), hits (44), on-base percentage (.500) and slugging percentage (.913), making him an early favorite for the league’s MVP award.
His hit total in March and April broke a Dodgers franchise record of 43 set by Rafael Furcal in 2008.
His 94 total bases are a major league record for the same period, nine better than the next-best mark, established by Chase Utley in 2008.
Asked to recall the last offensive player he saw this hot, Roberts replied, “For this period of time, I can't recall.”
He has also opened his stance, allowing him to reach the down-and-in breaking balls that troubled him in the past. His home run Sunday was on a two-strike slider Pirates starter Trevor Williams threw by his feet.
Bellinger has more walks (17) than strikeouts (14).
He is batting .324 against left-handed pitchers, almost 100 points better than he did in 2018.
Bellinger described his improvement as a byproduct of his failures last season, when he hit 25 home runs but batted only .260 and struck out 151 times.
“I think I found out what I couldn't do last year,” he said.
With the help of new hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc and hitting strategist Brant Brown, Bellinger has streamlined his process.
“I would just say it's understanding how to use your swing and just trying to stay within myself in the cage every day and repeat what I'm doing,” he said.
A key has been repetition.
Rather than mindlessly launching home runs in batting practice, Bellinger developed a pregame routine that helped him maintain a sense of rhythm, as well as rediscover it on days when he feels as if he’s lost it.
Roberts noticed this in spring training.
“Could I forecast the numbers?” Roberts said. “No, but I could see that there was a real finite intent to the work … the cage, the batting practice, the conversations. He was certainly heading into the right direction.”
Shortstop Corey Seager marvels at Bellinger’s ability to adjust from at-bat to at-bat.
“That's what you've got to have,” Seager said. “He's doing it at a really high level. He knows exactly where he is in the box.”
Bellinger credited the players around him for helping him stay within himself and pointed to them as reasons why he thinks he can continue to play at an All-Star level.
“I don't feel any pressure,” he said. “We have a lineup that's really good, so if I'm not going to get it done, someone else will.”