Hernández: Cody Bellinger becomes the Dodgers' unexpected hero again, saving season

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Dodgers' Cody Bellinger hugs Albert Pujols after the game-tying three-run home run.
Cody Bellinger hugs Albert Pujols after hitting a three-run home run in the eighth inning of a 6-5 win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 3 of the NLCS on Tuesday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

There’s something paradoxical about the most glorious victory lap in sports.

Send a pitch over the outfield wall at a critical moment in front of the home crowd, as Cody Bellinger did on Tuesday, and the bouncing spectators scream and literally make the stadium shake.

“It’s loud,” Bellinger said.

The player responsible for the chaos will experience the scene like none of the other 50,000-plus people there.

“You don’t really hear anything and you don’t really see anything,” Bellinger said.

Moments like this often belong to the LeBrons and Currys in basketball, the Bradys and Mannings in football, the Messis and Ronaldos in soccer.

Only in baseball are games or series or seasons changed practically every October by the unlikeliest of players.

On Tuesday, that unexpected hero was Bellinger, a .165 hitter in the regular season.

Bellinger saved the Dodgers’ season, his eighth-inning homer erasing a three-run deficit and setting the stage for Mookie Betts’ go-ahead RBI double in a 6-5 victory over the Atlanta Braves in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.

He kept the Dodgers from a three-games-to-none deficit, which almost certainly would have resulted in their elimination later in the week.

He revived an offense that was nonexistent for a third consecutive game.

He spared the front office from deserved public condemnation, as its experiments with the rotation backfired and essentially gave up the team’s significant edge in starting pitching.

“We were dead in the water,” manager Dave Roberts said. “You could see it.”

Bellinger’s homer came after the Dodgers collected only four hits through the first seven innings.

Cody Bellinger hits a game-tying, three-run home run during the eighth inning.
Bellinger was a .165 hitter in the regular season, but his three-run home run revived a sputtering Dodgers offense. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Bellinger was down in the count, 1-2, with one out.

The pitch he sent over the right-center field wall was a 96-mph fastball by Braves setup man Luke Jackson that was almost chin high and clearly out of the strike zone.

“It’s not a hitter’s pitch right there, but in the moment whatever happened, I saw it,” Bellinger said.

Score tied, 5-5.

Pandemonium.

“It’s just hard to imagine a bigger hit that I can remember, really, just kind of what was at stake,” Roberts said.

Roberts credited Bellinger’s approach.

Pointing to how Bellinger missed a high fastball on the previous pitch, Roberts said, “He shortened up and I can be certain that the last thing he was thinking about was hitting a homer. He widened his stance out and tried to square it up and move the baseball forward. Good things happen when you do that.”

This was a particularly difficult season for a player who was the National League MVP in 2019. His offseason was disrupted by a shoulder operation. A broken leg sidelined him early in the season.

Bellinger was in a slump that lasted for almost the entire season, with Roberts recalling how Bellinger wondered whether he would ever get another hit.

Co-hitting coach Brant Brown said Bellinger made changes to his swing after the Dodgers returned from a four-game series in St. Louis in early September.

“I think he knew he had to do something,” Brown said. “We talked about it. He was involved in the decision. We worked on it, we tinkered with it a few times. It’s just something that changes his intent right out of the get-go, allows him to have a little shorter swing, allows him to do things like he did today.”

The changes included the lowering of Bellinger’s hands.

“We just basically tried to put him in a position where he could go straight to the ball,” Brown said. “I don’t think it’s going to wind up there for the rest of his career. But for where he’s at right now, I just think it was an important change. His stance almost premeditates his intent, not trying to do too much.”

The adjustments produced some results.

In a late-season game against the San Diego Padres that had major implications in the NL West standings, Bellinger blasted the third of four eighth-inning home runs for the Dodgers in an 11-9 victory.

Bellinger also drove in the go-ahead run in Game 5 of the Dodgers’ National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants.

On Tuesday, the opportunity for him to create another magical moment came after Will Smith and AJ Pollock singled in the eighth inning with the Dodgers behind, 5-2.

Bellinger knew what he had to do: Not too much. By doing that, he gave the Dodgers the three runs required to save their season. And he gave himself a chance to live an October miracle.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.