In the past two games, the Dodgers unleashed their trio of Most Valuable Players, and the results were as awesome as the early expectations.
After Mookie Betts’ historic three-homer spree Thursday night, Cody Bellinger erupted from his slump with two homers and Clayton Kershaw rebounded from a three-homer loss with a one-hitter over seven innings in a 7-4 win over the Angels in Anaheim Friday night, providing the Dodgers with sole possession of first place.
As deep as the Dodgers are, to be the last club standing, they need domination from their best players. Bellinger came into Friday night’s game batting .165 and was dropped to fifth in the batting order against left-hander Patrick Sandoval. Kershaw, who began the season with a back injury, had just been roughed up by the Giants.
But both looked like MVPs against the Angels. Bellinger’s home runs came off left-handed pitchers and doubled his season total.
“I felt like the last few days were good, it’s just trusting the process,” said Bellinger. “Easier said than done, but just trying not to care about the results and feeling good up there. When the results aren’t there, it’s frustrating. But, I have felt really good lately. That’s positive.”
Kershaw said Bellinger is a little bit a victim of his own success. Kershaw speaks from experience.
“Expectations are higher now that he won the MVP,” Kershaw said of Bellinger’s slow start. “But 20 games, it’s just the start of the season and it’s magnified because it’s only a 60-game season. It’s difficult, but he’ll get going. We’re not worried about him. He’s been hitting the ball hard the last few games.”
Kershaw, meanwhile, repeated a career tendency of following disappointing outings with masterpieces, crediting a bullpen session during which he refined his pitch command.
“Everything tonight was crisper,” said Kershaw, who struck out six and induced a dozen ground-ball outs. “The slider for me is just huge. If I can throw that behind in the count for strikes, they can’t just sit on one pitch. A lot of ground balls and great defense, especially that play by Kiké [Hernández, second baseman] on Ohtani was amazing.”
Kershaw’s new-and-improved fastball touched 94 mph, a two-year high and payoff to an offseason that included a session at Driveline Baseball.
“It’s not everything, but I knew it was in there. I think that’s what was frustrating,” Kershaw said of the improved velocity. “The last couple of years, it’s been hard to figure out why it’s not coming out the way I wanted it to. Obviously, you still grind and try to make good starts.
“For whatever reason, we threw a lot of different things at it and our strength and conditioning staff, training staff, offseason stuff -- everybody did a great job with me trying to figure out what works, what doesn’t work. I can’t pinpoint one specific thing, but all the things that we tried, there’s a lot of things that have stuck. And it is gratifying, for sure.”
Bellinger applied all the analytics needed to define his starting pitcher’s outing.
“Kershaw was Kershaw today,” Bellinger said. “I think we’re all adjusting to the short season, some more than others, like me, but I think eventually, we’re all going to be all right.”
Angels manager Joe Maddon suggests that if Bellinger and Kershaw are the biggest worries, the Dodgers will be fine.
“I would not be concerned with [Bellinger], or Muncy, or anybody that's off to a slow start over there,” Maddon said. “These guys can really hit. And it's just a matter of time that they will.
“[Kershaw’s] velocity was up from when I've seen him in the recent past. Velocity was up, slider was down. He was really uncanny with the slider today. He was on top of his game.”