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Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger gains redemption for October failures with one majestic swing

Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger hits a home run in the seventh inning.
Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger hits a home run in the seventh inning of the Dodger’s 4-3 win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 of the NLCS on Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Clay Bellinger has shared most of the lessons he learned over a 16-year professional baseball career with his son Cody, the Dodgers’ MVP center fielder.

They’ve talked about the grind of the game, how to handle the pressure and enjoy the pleasures and prepare for every at-bat.

The one thing they haven’t discussed much? Clay’s two World Series rings, championships he earned serving primarily as a bench player on the 1999 and 2000 New York Yankees.

“Not really,” Clay said when asked if his son has inquired about how to win a championship. “I didn’t play a whole lot. I was more a defensive substitute later, pinch-running, that kind of stuff. I didn’t get four or five at-bats every single game. I was more of a cheerleader.”

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The Dodgers advanced to the World Series for the third time in four years after defeating the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 of the NLCS on Sunday night.

In Sunday’s Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, Cody’s role was the exact opposite. When he came to the plate in the seventh inning for his fourth at-bat, the score was tied. The pennant hung in the balance.

Then he hammered a ball that will long live in Dodgers history, a go-ahead and eventual game-winning solo home run that helped send his team back to the World Series for the third time in four years — and moved him one step closer to finally matching his dad’s championship status.

“Cody is as talented as any player in baseball,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said following the team’s 4-3 win over the Atlanta Braves, sending them to a Fall Classic matchup with the Tampa Bay Rays. “But I think this postseason has shown him: He’s learned really the value of controlling the strike zone, taking what they give you, trying to win pitches, and if there’s a walk in there, take the walk. If they make a mistake, you can still slug.”

Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger celebrates after hitting a home run.
Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger celebrates after hitting a home run in the seventh inning of Game 7 of the NLCS on Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

That’s exactly what happened during Bellinger’s series-deciding at-bat, a heavyweight bout against sinkerball-spinning reliever Chris Martin that lasted eight rounds. Martin landed the first blow in the righty-lefty matchup with a cutter that grazed the outer half of the strike zone. Bellinger battled back by laying off a couple sinkers away, then watched another cutter paint the outside edge.

Martin’s plan was clear: Where other pitchers attack the big-swinging Bellinger up-and-in, Martin was trying to set him up away.

“Bellinger just hasn’t shown the ability to stay off that [up-and-in] pitch,” said Fox broadcaster and MLB Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who was on the losing end of that 1999 World Series as a pitcher for the Braves. “But the strength of Martin, and the call that [catcher Travis] d’Arnaud has, is staying away.”

An all-angles look at Cody Bellinger’s go-ahead home run in the Dodgers’ win over the Braves in NLCS Game 7 on Sunday.

That’s what the battery did on two of the next three pitches, an arm-side sinker and cutter Bellinger fouled away. Sandwiched between those pitches was an inside sinker Bellinger fought off as well.

And on pitch No. 8, D’Arnaud positioned his glove in the upper corner again, wanting to mix up locations once more. The ball never got there. Martin’s 94-mph sinker stayed over the heart of the plate. Bellinger crushed it 400 feet.

“I tried to have the same approach,” Bellinger said during a Fox television interview, having flied out in another eight-pitch at-bat against Martin in Game 6. “Tried to stay within myself right there, and with two strikes, I was in battle mode and got a pitch I could hit. I knew right away it felt pretty good.”

The 2020 regular season was one of frustration for Bellinger. The reigning NL MVP struggled to figure out his mechanics and approach while collecting career lows in batting average (.239), on-base-plus-slugging (.789) and OPS+ (113, meaning he was only 13% better than the average hitter).

His 30 walks, however, ranked second on the team — a sign to both his manager and his dad that his struggles would be only temporary, that he could still put himself in a position to punish mistakes.

In the playoffs, he is batting .250 with an OPS of .911. His 10 RBIs are second-most on the team behind only Corey Seager. On Sunday, he became the first player to hit home runs in multiple NLCS Game 7s, one-upping his blast against the Milwaukee Brewers from 2017.

“Most of the season, he was seeing it well,” Clay said. “He just couldn’t figure it out mechanicallywise. And then he finally made an adjustment … and started doing pretty well ever since then.”

Through gutsy performances from Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts and Corey Seager, the Dodgers showed their resilience in a stunning series comeback against the Braves.

Added Roberts: “The surface-line average might not speak to how good he’s been. But spoiling pitches, the amount of pitches he’s seen, taking walks, has been considerably better than he was this [regular] season. And that’s just, credit goes to him.”

Bellinger’s next chance for redemption will come in this week’s World Series — a stage on which he struggled in 2017 and 2018, hitting a combined five-for-44 (.114) in 12 games with five RBIs, one home run, one walk and 23 strikeouts.

Those numbers weren’t weighing on his mind Sunday night though. He celebrated his home run with a pose-striking bat flip and arm-banging celebration with Kiké Hernández that popped out his right shoulder (“I had to go back into the trainer’s room and they popped it back in so I could go out and play defense,” he said). He wore a constant smile during the postgame trophy celebration. He was a franchise hero once again. This time, he hopes there will be a ring to go along with it.

“The only thing that matters is winning four more games,” Bellinger said. “If they want to dissect my swing, whatever it is — I just want to do anything I can to help this team win. That’s my mind-set. That’s a lot of guys’ mind-sets.”


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