LOS ANGELES — They’ll try it again, show up and see if this version of themselves has anything on the last few versions, see if they’re any better or if the other guys are a little worse. Either way would make no difference to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It is October and they are on the clock, a couple days of batting practice in T-shirts and rolled-up pants followed by a cap tip from the third-base line followed by who knows what, more baseball, zero-zero-zero batting averages and ERAs, their destinies up against everybody else’s.
Over the past six Octobers the Dodgers have played 61 games, one of those actually tipping into November. In the past two they have played 31 games, won 18 of those, and this is what it looks like when a team is sure this is its time and discovers otherwise. When being part of something special, when being out in front of something special, ends with their elbows on their knees, their eyes fixed on a dugout floor, their version of themselves not quite good enough again.
They win until they don’t, until Yu Darvish shuffles away or Manny Machado takes a knee, and then it’s on all of them, from the guy who pays the salaries to the other guy who picks the team to the one who puts the players in order to the players who finish a couple days — or even hours — from a championship that can’t possibly have been lost. Again.
Eleven months later, Cody Bellinger is the sort of thing that happens to change all that, how at 23 years old he’d tired of the swings and misses, how the pitchers had taken their games to him, how that had resulted in, among other imperfections, a .115 October batting average and 16 strikeouts in 52 at-bats. He’d still been one of the better athletes on the field. He’d won an NLCS game with a single in the bottom of the 13th inning and another NLCS game — the last of seven — with a two-run home run. He’d also had one hit — a single — over five World Series games. And if that seems like an exceptionally small number of opportunities in which to judge oneself, especially a hitter in his early 20s — 16 at-bats in a series, 52 in a single October, 116 across two — that’s sort of the whole point of October, right? One shot. Maybe a few. A hundred and sixteen if you’re really lucky.
“I mean, it’s going to be a huge challenge,” Bellinger said. “The people we’re playing are getting a lot of money to beat us.”
Even as Clayton Kershaw and Co. took the heaviest scolding in recent Octobers, there also was the issue of an offense that batted .205 and .180 in the past two World Series, because hitting is difficult, hitting in the playoffs is more difficult and hitting in the World Series turns plenty of guys into nine-hole hitters. October is generally where the best pitchers are, see, and if you miss one back-foot slider you’re probably going to see a hundred of them, or as many as it takes to hit or lay off one.
While he has not revealed precisely how he spent his months after the last World Series — he generally greets those lines of questioning with a lopsided grin and something vague about getting better at baseball — Bellinger returned in spring a remade hitter. He became the best player in the National League or something close to it. In 29 more plate appearances than he had the previous season, 2019 Bellinger trimmed his strikeouts by 43, drew 26 more walks, hit a career-best 47 home runs, batted .305 and, though his production dipped in the second half, generally looked like a more prepared and savvier hitter. He turned 24 this summer and already is nearly 2,000 plate appearances into the lessons that are relentless baseball seasons, how they stalk wandering minds, achy bodies and frayed mechanics.
So it is time again, time for him and the rest who have left those recent seasons with the same dull pain, a few pitches short, a few hits short, a few breaths short. The Houston Astros were better. Then the Boston Red Sox were better. They got the parades. The Dodgers got the cleanup.
In the days before he’d try this October thing again, Bellinger, wearing a T-shirt and with his pants rolled to his knees, offered that lopsided grin. He’d spent the previous couple months slightly more vulnerable to fastballs, slightly more willing to chase two-strike pitches designed to get him to chase, and yet still an authoritative offensive player. It’s not always perfect, and it’s possible in the runaway that was the NL West he subconsciously chased 50 home runs or an MVP award, and it’s also possible it’s very hard to be that good for that long.
“I think the thing that I learned is how to succeed and help the team when you’re not feeling good, because you’re not going to feel good for six months out of the year,” he said. “There’s going to be times when you feel like [poop]. And you gotta go out there and compete. And that’s where I learned how to compete and have results. Where it looks like I’m not really competing, I’ll do other things. You know? Like, mentally and physically I could be competing, but you go out there and hit and no one really knows how I’m feeling. That’s competing.”
Asked what that meant, exactly, he laughed and tried, “I think you look at the best hitters, like I have no idea what Mike Trout thinks. But it always looks like he’s ready to hit, even though if he feels [bad] at the plate, you have no idea.”
For that, and also for the 106 games the Dodgers won and for his part in it, Bellinger said: “I’m definitely proud of what happened this year. I showed that the work that I did in the offseason paid off. But, with that, I’m not even satisfied with it. I want to keep getting better.”
That leaves October, a signature franchise without a championship into a fourth decade and, possibly, the hero it needs.
“I think the thing he’s taken from this year,” manager Dave Roberts said, “he’s a superstar. He’s one of the best players in the league. Not only talent, but he’s shown it over the course of the year. … He came a long way in a short period of time.”
So, they’ll try it again. Show up. See about this version of themselves. See if they can’t win another game or two, see if the 24-year-old isn’t ready to lead them.
“Of course, it’s the biggest stage,” Bellinger said. “But at the end of the day, the only thing that we’re worried about is winning games.”
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