SAN FRANCISCO -- Throughout his life, being a dominant presence at the plate is really all Cody Bellinger has ever known.
Bellinger famously helped his team reach the Little League World Series in 2007. He continued that success in high school, becoming a highly-touted prospect. Bellinger had the choice of signing with the Dodgers, who selected him in the fourth round of the 2013 MLB Draft, or sign with the University of Oregon. Once Bellinger chose professional baseball, finding success wasn’t an issue for the tall and skinny, but powerful left-hander.
It took Bellinger just four years to climb through the Minors, winning a championship with Rancho Cucamonga and becoming a Minor League All-Star along the way. The success didn’t stop even when he arrived at the pinnacle of professional baseball. In fact, Bellinger got even better.
Bellinger set a Dodgers rookie record with 39 homers in just 132 games in 2017. He won the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Two years later, Bellinger took things to the next level, hitting a career-high 47 homers en route to winning the NL MVP, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Awards.
Not many players make professional baseball look easy. Bellinger was doing just that.
This season, however, Bellinger has been faced with a much different reality. He’s no longer answering questions about his power at the plate. Most of the chatter around Bellinger this season has revolved around the fact that, maybe for the first time in his life, the star center fielder isn’t performing at the plate.
As he battled multiple injuries, including a hairline fracture in his left tibia that sidelined him for three months, Bellinger wrapped up the regular season with a career-low .165 average and just 10 homers. Offseason arthroscopic surgery on his non-throwing shoulder didn’t help his ability to prepare in the offseason. Even then, the lack of power was shocking. The lack of production at the plate was one of the most surprising storylines, not just for the Dodgers, but across baseball.
But as Bellinger stepped up to the plate in Wednesday’s NL Wild Card Game against the Cardinals, the scoreboard showed that his batting average was .000. While he can’t take back the struggles of the regular season, that showed him that what he does in the postseason could erase the perception of his season.
“I think at this point, it’s time to forget the season and just move on to the postseason, and try to help this team win in any way you can, offense, defense, baserunning,” Bellinger said. “There’s a lot more aspects to the game. I feel good and I’m feeling healthy. Any way I can impact the game, I’m trying to impact it.”
Bellinger certainly made an impact in Wednesday’s game. He reached base three times and stole two bases. No plate appearance was more important, however, than his two-out walk against left-hander T.J. McFarland in the ninth ahead of Chris Taylor's walk-off homer. Bellinger had a .383 OPS against left-handed pitching this season. But for one plate appearance against McFarland, Bellinger looked more like the hitter that he used to be.
“My thing is that he’s going to be better going forward as a ballplayer and as a person going through this adversity this year,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He’s getting to the other side, and the at-bats that he took [Wednesday], take the walk, base hit, a couple stolen bases, that’s what we need from him, to be that dynamic player, not that one-dimensional home run hitter. He’s embraced that, and he helped us win a ballgame.”
“The results are definitely nice to see,” Bellinger said on Wednesday, with a smile.
The Dodgers are going to need more performances like Wednesday’s from Bellinger moving forward. Without Max Muncy in the NL Division Series against the Giants, the Dodgers are going to rely heavily on the rest of their lineup, especially Bellinger, who also hits left-handed. Bellinger will get plenty of chances as he’s expected to start in center field in every game this postseason.
Los Angeles doesn’t need Bellinger to turn back into the player that took the league by storm. The club just needs him to put together consistent quality at-bats and continue playing an elite center field.
It hasn’t been the season Bellinger wanted. The failure is something he’s never experienced. But with a good month, Bellinger has a chance to put everything behind him and ultimately do what he’s done best throughout his career: Find success.