One MVP steals another's thunder as Belli smacks 2 homers

April 25th, 2022

SAN DIEGO – A large Dodgers contingent in San Diego was expecting to watch Clayton Kershaw pass Don Sutton for the franchise’s all-time strikeout record. Kershaw struck out three, keeping him three shy of Sutton’s record. He’ll get another crack next weekend against the Tigers at Dodger Stadium.

But instead of watching Kershaw accomplish yet another feat, everyone in attendance was reminded of what Cody Bellinger is capable of at the plate. The former National League Most Valuable Player hit two home runs in the Dodgers’ 10-2 victory over the Padres in the series finale at Petco Park. It was Bellinger’s first multihomer game of the season, matching his total from each of his past two seasons.

“It’s not easy to struggle being on this team,” Kershaw said. “Definitely not a fun thing to go through, but it makes this that much sweeter, I bet. I bet Belli is feeling pretty good right now, and rightfully so.”

Just last September, as struggles compounded at the plate for Bellinger, the outfielder was relegated to a platoon player for the Dodgers. Statistically, the 26-year-old was one of the worst hitters in the Majors in 2021. It was the most shocking development for a player who won an NL MVP just two years prior.

Well, what a difference seven months can make.

Bellinger came into Spring Training fully healthy after dealing with multiple injuries in 2021. He had a miserable spring, striking out in half of his Cactus League at-bats. Trusting his process, Bellinger’s confidence never wavered.

“It’s a different type of grind when you’ve done things kind of your whole life and it’s just not working out,” Bellinger said. “You have to kind of adjust. Just got back to the basics and feeling good and just continuing to ride out the wave, ride out the season.” 

His first homer on Sunday was a perfect depiction of the progress Bellinger has made over the past few months. In '21, Bellinger hit just .111 with one homer off left-handed pitchers. On Sunday, Bellinger drove an 88 mph changeup from lefty Sean Manaea and sent it over the center-field wall in the fourth inning. It had an exit velocity of 104.4 mph and traveled a projected 405 feet, according to Statcast.

In the fifth, Bellinger fell behind in the count but stayed through a Dinelson Lamet slider, sending it into the right-center-field seats for a three-run homer. That homer traveled 412 feet and had an exit velocity of 105.4 mph. It was just the fourth time since ‘20 that Bellinger drove in four or more runs in a game.

“Coming off the shoulder surgery and all those things, that’s a challenge for anybody,” said Kershaw, like Bellinger a former NL MVP. “But he grinded through it, didn’t say anything about it. Coming into this year, we all had high hopes for him. But for him to do what he’s doing right now is awesome. I know we’re all happy for him, and we need it.” 

Through 14 games, Bellinger was still in the 11th percentile in strikeout percentage and was still swinging and missing more than the average player. But he had shown several glimpses of his old self with six multihit games. He has been hitting the ball hard more frequently this season with a 48.5% hard-hit rate, 14 points higher than last season’s average. 

In the Dodgers’ last homestand, Bellinger went the other way for a pair of hits, something that was nearly unthinkable last season. His success against four-seam fastballs is also much higher this season, posting a .250 against such pitchers, compared to his .150 clip in 2021.

All those developments have kept the Dodgers optimistic that Bellinger will have a bounce-back season. They don’t necessarily need him to be a 40-homer guy moving forward. But Sunday was yet another reminder of why they stuck with Bellinger through those tough times. 

“It’s hard to bet against the talent,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “I think the September and October hitter showed him something – that he can still help a championship team win baseball games when it mattered. Now you’ve got the hitter with that mindset and some strength behind it.”