Column: It’s only 4/20, but Cody Bellinger has rediscovered some of his old slugging highs
The chant arose from the upper reaches of Dodger Stadium in the sixth inning Wednesday afternoon, one name, two syllables, familiar cadence.
No, it wasn’t “Fred-die, Fred-die, Fred-die!”
This time, for the first time, it was “Co-dy, Co-dy, Co-dy!”
A season after staring at him in uncomfortable silence, Dodgers fans are once again celebrating Cody Bellinger, and why not?
He’s starting to look like, well, Cody Bellinger.
In an impressive 5-1 series-winning victory over the Atlanta Braves, Bellinger sprinted into a double, sped into a triple, drove in a run and smiled like a kid again.
“I’m just trying to ride the wave,” he said.
Two days earlier, in the opener of the Dodgers’ first important three-game challenge of the season, he homered and doubled and drove in two runs in another victory, leaving the defending World Series champion Braves looking flatter than the Waffle House specialty.
“Feeling good and just trying to keep going,” he said.
In all, Bellinger had the sort of series that reminded one of a previous chant folks here once showered upon him.
“M-V-P, M-V-P! M-V-P!”
Remember that? Of course you do. In 2019, he was the National League MVP before a precipitous fall that last season landed him at the bottom of a historically deep barrel. While slowly recovering from the effects of shoulder surgery, he was not only the worst hitter in baseball, he was also arguably its worst former MVP, stumbling to a .165 average and .542 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
“I was going through some s - - - last year,” he said Wednesday.
Tony Gonsolin gives up one hit in six shutout innings and Freddie Freeman hits a home run in the Dodgers’ 5-1 win Wednesday over the Atlanta Braves
Something like that.
Everyone tried to change his stance. Everyone tried to fix his swing. Everyone tried to get inside his head.
The entire city seemingly became emboldened in their theories about his struggles. This was evidenced Wednesday during a video board interview when a fan blurted out, “I think Cody celebrates 4/20 every now and then,” referring to April 20 being an unofficial holiday celebrating marijuana.
Bellinger saw it and said, “I had no reaction.”
He was still terrible this spring, and he might have been benched if the Dodgers didn’t have such great offensive firepower around him. Plus, after last year’s postseason, they owed him some runway.
He drew the walk that led to the Chris Taylor walk-off homer in the wild-card victory over St. Louis. He had the eventual series-winning single in the ninth inning against the San Francisco Giants in the division series. And he had a three-run tying homer in an eventual Dodgers win over the Braves in Game 3 of the NLCS.
The Dodgers hoped those brief starring glimpses meant that his 2019 greatness was still in there somewhere. In this emotional rematch against the Braves, he showed that it was.
After a dozen games, he is hitting .279 with two home runs and four RBIs and six extra-base hits and swings filled with hope.
“Every time he steps in the box, he’s conducting a professional at-bat,” said manager Dave Roberts. “He’s putting the barrel on the ball and being more like what we expect of Cody.”
He’s still striking out plenty — 15 times already — but his swing is more consistent and his contact is much harder.
“For him to understand game situations, feel good at the plate, seeing the baseball … that’s where we want to keep him,” said Roberts.
Even though both of Wednesday’s extra-base hits were a tribute to his speed, both balls were solidly struck such that one could hear the thwack as easily as one could hear the chants.
“I really believe he can be a better hitter now going forward than in his MVP year,” said Roberts. “There was a lot of slug in there that carried the MVP. ... I think there’s a really good opportunity for him to be an even more well-rounded hitter.”
So, no, he’s probably not going to hit 47 homers and drive in 115 as he did three years ago. But in this lineup, he can be just as effective hitting the ball into gaps and running like crazy, and he knows it.
At age 26, he’s learned a lot about the game … and himself.
According to Roberts, Bellinger was, “I say this in an endearing way, kind of the young and dumb, when you don’t know what’s happening and you’re just talented, when things go awry you’ve got to kind of work your way out of it.”
And now that he’s seemingly worked his way out of it, “That’s experience, that’s maturity, he’s gotten to the other side,” said Roberts.
Bellinger agreed, saying the awful season helped him, “kind of learn a little bit about yourself … really truly know how hard this game is, to never take anything for granted.”
He paused. He sighed.
“Whole new year now,” he said.
And with it, he’s found himself in new surroundings, batting at the bottom of an order anchored by Freddie Freeman — he homered again Wednesday — while playing without the pressure to carry anyone but himself.
“Definitely learned a lot about myself,” he said. “Older now, maybe a little stronger.”
A single-A pitcher for the Cleveland Guardians has taken Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw’s pitching stance as inspiration for better pitching.
Maybe, it seems, a lot stronger. Striding steadily and swinging smartly and sizzling around the bases Wednesday, he seemed as strong as that new grinning friend in his locker.
It’s a yellow smiley-face balloon. Somebody stuck it in there at the start of the homestand and three days later it was still there, still inflated, still smiling.
“Unless it dies down or something, it will be there for a minute,” Bellinger said.
So, it appears, will he.
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