ARLINGTON, Texas — Clay Bellinger sat in Section 122 at Globe Life Field alongside his wife Sunday when Cody Bellinger came to bat with the score tied in the bottom of the seventh. Clay began to tell himself the same thing he tells himself every time his son digs into the batter’s box.
Let’s have a moment. Let’s have a moment. Let’s have a moment.
Then the moment came. The younger Bellinger turned on a fastball out over the plate, sent it 400 feet to right field and admired the drive in a manner befitting the accomplishment. His majestic home run gave the Los Angeles Dodgers their first lead and served as the decisive run in the 4-3 victory that sealed Game 7 of the National League Championship Series and punctuated an improbable comeback.
Throughout the summer, Clay watched as Cody struggled to duplicate the success of his MVP season in 2019. He batted only .239/.333/.455, one of several superstars who struggled through an unconventional season that consisted of empty stadiums without the use of in-game video and only a 60-game schedule.
Cody began the year adjusting to a slightly different setup, a personal preference that he suggested to the Dodgers’ hitting coaches during the three-month shutdown. As the season progressed, Clay kept hearing Cody express how comfortable he felt, even while positive results remained elusive. Clay, a utility player who won two World Series rings with the New York Yankees, mostly backed off. Then, after the Atlanta Braves took a commanding 3-1 series lead, he sent Cody a text. He felt his son was suddenly becoming too passive within the strike zone.
The message: Get in the box, be the man, see what happens.
“Hitting’s the hardest thing to do in sports, and when you’re taking one swing an at-bat, it’s super hard,” Clay explained. “I told him, ‘Get back to being aggressive the way you are. And if you get to two strikes, take that aggressive swing.'”
Clay started liking the quality of the at-bats over the next few days and watched it crescendo in Game 7. In the second inning, he watched Cody turn on a two-strike fastball low and inside — the type of pitch that gave him fits all year — and scorch a 107 mph line drive directly into the glove of Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. He followed by working back-to-back walks, the second on a full count.
Then, against Braves reliever Chris Martin in the seventh, Bellinger reached a 2-2 count. He fouled off a 95 mph sinker away and a 94 mph sinker inside, fouled off a 90 mph cutter off the plate, then got his pitch — another sinker, middle up — and didn’t miss it. His home run, which came two years after a similar one, put him alongside Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra as the only players with a go-ahead homer in multiple Game 7s.
Cody Bellinger launches a solo home run to right field, giving the Dodgers a 4-3 lead.
Now, with the Tampa Bay Rays on deck and four wins separating this franchise from its first World Series title since the days of Kirk Gibson, the question must be asked: Have the Dodgers finally unlocked Cody Bellinger?
“We get him going,” Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts said, “that is a sight to see.”
Bellinger’s home run was only his fifth hit in 25 at-bats this series, but that line doesn’t come close to capturing his performance last week. Throughout the series, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts noticed Bellinger and Corey Seager — the NLCS MVP after producing a 1.230 OPS in seven games — begin to fully grasp the importance of controlling the strike zone. Bellinger drew six walks in the series and chased 19.7% of pitches outside the strike zone, an improvement from his 28% chase rate from the regular season. His average exit velocity was 95 mph, which showed up in a lot of hard outs.
There was a 108 mph ground out in the second inning of Game 1, a 114 mph triple in the ninth inning of Game 2 and a 410-foot fly out to straightaway center field in the ninth inning of Game 4, which remained in play only because of howling winds that reached 15 mph.
Maybe Bellinger, a .178/.234/.326 hitter in 36 postseason games entering the year, has found his MVP form at the right time.
Maybe, like Seager, he has learned to slow down the game in October.
Maybe his best is yet to come.
“Man,” Clay said, “I hope so. That’s all you can hope for.”