Bellinger changes 2020 narrative with heroic Game 7 blast
All season long, the Los Angeles Dodgers waited.
Throughout its charmed 2020 campaign, baseball's best team waited for its ostensible second-best player to perform up to his capabilities, or to even vaguely resemble the player he was a year ago, when he won the National League MVP award. As the Dodgers tormented the league with their unrivalled star power and depth, Cody Bellinger underwhelmed.
It seemed the league adjusted to him in the wake of his monster season. Pitchers fed him fewer fastballs than ever. He struggled to adjust back. Bellinger started chasing more. He wasn't making hard contact as regularly. Eventually, he was bumped down in the batting order. He finished the shortened season with career-worsts in almost every meaningful category. And amid breakouts from Corey Seager and Will Smith, along with day-in, day-out brilliance from Justin Turner and newcomer Mookie Betts, Bellinger ceased being the man for the Dodgers.
On Sunday night, however, Bellinger bolstered his case - and changed the narrative of his 2020 season - with one swing.
Bellinger, who was 4-for-23 (.174) through the first six games of the National League Championship Series, delivered the decisive blow in Game 7, clobbering a go-ahead solo home run in the seventh inning against the Atlanta Braves to propel the Dodgers to a 4-3 come-from-behind victory and their third pennant in four years.
It was a monstrous clout, and Bellinger knew it was gone as soon as he hit. He enjoyed it thoroughly, perhaps too much: he injured his shoulder celebrating with Kiké Hernandez. The blast saw Bellinger become the first player to ever homer in Game 7 of the NLCS on multiple occasions, but more importantly, it helped the Dodgers cap a historic comeback - L.A. is the eighth club to win a league championship series after trailing 3-1 - that reaffirmed how singularly talented this team is.
Even for the Dodgers, who boast the strongest roster of their eight-year stretch of dominance atop the NL West, winning three straight against Atlanta seemed highly improbable - the Braves lost three consecutive games once en route to a third straight division title, and had lost one playoff game total through Game 4 of the NLCS. Yet L.A. refused to capitulate after its offense disappeared in the first two games and Clayton Kershaw stumbled late in Game 4, besting the Braves in Games 5 and 6 - victories fueled by an offensive outburst from Seager and a command performance from Walker Buehler - to set up a winner-take-all finale. And while Game 7 began inauspiciously, with the Braves taking an early 2-0 lead, the Dodgers evened the score as the late innings dawned, evincing a resilience typified in Bellinger's pivotal at-bat.
Bellinger, who lined out and walked twice in his first three plate appearances Sunday, didn't swing until he had two strikes on him against Chris Martin, the veteran right-hander who'd already thrown 3 2/3 scoreless innings in the series coming into Game 7. Bellinger took a first-pitch cutter for a strike, worked the count back in his favor by laying off two straight sinkers off the plate, then took another backdoor cutter for strike two. He fouled off the next pitch. And the next one. And the next one. Then, on pitch No. 8, Martin left a sinker over the heart of the plate, belt-high, and Bellinger unloaded.
A mighty swing, but Bellinger wasn't the Dodgers' lone hero in Game 7. Betts, who dazzled in right field all series, robbed Freddie Freeman of a home run in the fifth inning with another sensational leaping grab, keeping his club's deficit to one. Hernandez tied the game at 3-3 in the sixth with a pinch-hit solo shot. Julio Urias, the emergent left-hander, pitched three superb innings to close out the game. And Dave Roberts, the Dodgers' longtime manager, had the fortitude to stick with Urias for the ninth with his club clinging to a one-run lead, rather than go to a veteran like Kenley Jansen or even Kershaw. Absent Bellinger's home run, however, those moments aren't necessarily moments. Perhaps they're simply plays lost to someone else's history.
At any rate, Bellinger's season will no longer be defined by those disappointing first 60 games. Instead, it'll be defined by his pennant-winning home run and what comes next.
And if the Dodgers' epic NLCS comeback is any indication, his Game 7 homer will end up being one of many indelible moments in an ultimately unforgettable season for a franchise and a fanbase that has waited so long - and endured so much heartbreak, particularly in recent years - for one.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.