Column: Dodgers need Cody Bellinger to regain his swagger for team to shine in October
If not for the foul pole that interfered with its trajectory, the baseball looked as if it might vanish into the stratosphere and never come down.
Cody Bellinger walked down the first base line as he admired the object in flight. He defiantly tossed his bat.
This was like April all over again.
Which, really, is a polite way of saying that his trademark power has disappeared over the last month.
His home run in a 10-inning, 8-7 defeat to the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday night was Bellinger’s 45th of the season but only his third in his last 27 games. He’s batting .247 over the same period.
The downturn in production has imperiled what felt like a certainty when Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers fractured his kneecap earlier this month — that Bellinger would be named the most valuable player in the National League.
More alarming are the possible postseason implications for the Dodgers, especially with Justin Turner sidelined, Max Muncy only a handful of games into his return from the injured list and Corey Seager still working his way back into rhythm after missing the majority of last year.
The MVP isn’t playing like an MVP.
Bellinger was a nonfactor in the World Series two years ago and a nonfactor in the World Series again last year. Something has to change for the Dodgers to win their first championship in 31 years and Bellinger is the most obvious place to start.
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen allows two runs in the ninth inning of an eventual 8-7 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.
“At the end of the day, that’s why we’re playing the games, for the postseason,” Bellinger said.
Before the come-from-ahead loss to the Rays, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was asked if he considered Bellinger the NL MVP. Roberts pondered the question for several seconds.
His answer was as emphatic as his thought process was deliberate.
“Yes, yes, yes,” he said.
Roberts has continued batting Bellinger fourth, which the manager said has value even when production declines.
“The steady presence in the lineup,” he said. “When you’re taking 650 plate appearances, that consistency is huge for a ballclub.”
Roberts also pointed to Bellinger’s defense, specifically how he’s moved from right field to first base to center field.
“He’s a plus defender anywhere you put him,” Roberts said. “I’ll tell you this: Cody’s baseball instincts are on the higher end and it’s because he’s been around the game for so long.”
Roberts was appreciative of Bellinger’s willingness to play wherever asked.
“When I think of a leader, it’s a person who is unselfish,” Roberts said. “When you’re really putting a priority on defense, that shows leadership.”
The move to center field this month was especially valuable. Alex Verdugo will be sidelined through at least the first round of the playoffs with a lower back injury. A.J. Pollock’s reduced range has pushed him into left field.
Roberts acknowledged playing center field might require Bellinger to run more, but he didn’t think fatigue was to blame for his late-season crash. Rather, he pointed to how opposing pitchers are attacking him with more high fastballs.
That’s what made Bellinger’s eighth-inning home run a particularly welcome sight. The pitch Bellinger whacked was a 96 mph fastball up in the zone by Emilio Pagan.
“Cody got beat on a fastball earlier,” Roberts said. “They tried to go to the well one too many times. He beat it to the spot and got the barrel to it.”
The availability of infielder Justin Turner and pitcher Rich Hill for the playoffs remains unclear, but Dodgers manager Dave Roberts is upbeat about the roster.
Roberts cited the home run as evidence of Bellinger’s efforts to correct his swing path.
“Really good swing,” Roberts said. “A lot of what he did early on in the season.”
Bellinger was his typically understated self.
“It’s nice seeing results,” he said.
Bellinger had other periods this season when he didn’t hit for average.
This is the first extended stretch in which he hasn’t hit for power. He’s hit six or more home runs in every month this season, except for September.
His slump extended into his early at-bats Wednesday.
Bellinger doubled in the second inning, but only because an extreme shift by the Rays nearly emptied the left side of their infield and allowed a pop-up to shallow left field to drop. Bellinger batted in the sixth inning with the men on the corners and the Dodgers trailing by a run, only to strike out on three pitches by right-handed reliever Oliver Drake.
“It’s just playing the game,” Bellinger said. “I’ve been feeling all right.”
Roberts guessed Bellinger was affected by the MVP talk, but the player denied that was the case.
“No, not really,” he said. “I’m enjoying. Never know when it’s going to happen again.
“I’m feeling pretty good and just trying to carry that into the last stretch of the season and the playoffs.”
October could depend on it.
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