LOS ANGELES — Just when the fading Los Angeles Dodgers were barely visible above the horizon in this National League Championship Series, Cody Bellinger pulled them back into view in the eighth inning of Game 3. Three-run homers have a way of papering over past failures, and the Dodgers’ list of those was growing by the plate appearance.
Five outs from dropping into a three-games-to-none sinkhole, a lineup that had sputtered with runners in scoring position was facing its fair share of doubters, even within the Dodgers’ dugout.
“We were dead in the water,” Manager Dave Roberts said.
“We’ve had some bad approaches,” added Mookie Betts.
Then, with two runners on base, Bellinger, a former winner of the Most Valuable Player Award who struggled badly all season, redirected a 95 mile-per-hour fastball from Luke Jackson into the stands to knot the game. Chris Taylor singled and stole second, Mookie Betts crashed an R.B.I. double into right-center and the Dodgers held on to be surprising 6-5 winners over Atlanta at Dodger Stadium.
The turn of events was nothing short of stunning.
Bellinger had no business even swinging at the letter-high fastball from Jackson, let alone crushing it 399 feet over the fence in right-center.
“The sad part is, I’d do the same thing again,” Jackson said of the pitch, which was out of the strike zone.
His plan was a fastball up and away and “I actually threw it better than I thought. Out of my hand I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a ball. It’s too high.’ And no, it wasn’t too high. It was a good player who put a good swing on it. Pretty remarkable.”
Bellinger, 26, suffered through the worst season of his career in 2021. He hit .165 with 10 homers, down from the 47 he hit on his way to winning the M.V.P. in 2019. He was especially toothless against left-handed pitchers, batting .116 with a .208 on-base percentage and one homer.
Roberts talked about how Bellinger hit rock bottom. Max Scherzer, acquired at the trade deadline, talked in San Francisco last week about how he’s almost taken the struggling outfielder on as a project, having several private conversations with him, reminding him that you just have to keep bouncing back.
This postseason, Bellinger has done that. He knocked in the winning run in the deciding Game 5 of the Dodgers’ division series against the Giants and quite possibly saved his team’s season with Tuesday’s three-run homer.
Until the eighth, the Dodgers had been 2 for 20 with runners in scoring position in this series. On Tuesday, they had failed to advance a base runner even as far as second base from the third through the seventh innings. Atlanta starter Charlie Morton was uncharacteristically and dangerously off in the first inning, walking four batters while needing 34 pitches (only 15 strikes) to get through it — and still the Dodgers could only push two runs across.
But when his team needed him, Bellinger came through.
“Luckily for me, I got a clean slate going into the postseason and I was feeling good towards the end of the regular season,” Bellinger said. “And I just tried to continue that and continue that feel into the postseason.”
Bellinger started the season coming back from shoulder surgery over the winter, then he suffered a hairline fracture of his left fibula that sidelined him from April 6 to May 29. He failed to find his groove upon returning, spent much of the season tinkering with his mechanics, still couldn’t get things right and, finally, in mid-September after a four-game series in St. Louis during which he went 0 for 14, he once again tinkered with his batting stance.
“We just basically tried to put him in a position where he can kind of go straight to the ball,” said Brant Brown, the Dodgers’ hitting coach. “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.”
It worked for now.
“It’s difficult, but I think when you hit rock bottom there’s a lot of opportunity for openness and change,” Roberts said. “But to his credit he lowered his hands, understood that he needed to hit the ball more square, more flat, get the loop out of his swing.
“And you see the path of that bat tonight, there’s no way with an uppercut you’re going to square that baseball up.”
Taylor followed Bellinger with a single. Then, while most of the 51,307 fans in the stadium were fixated on the stunning home run, Taylor stole second in a crucial play that removed the possibility of an inning-ending double play. Sure enough, Matt Beaty, who had entered the game as a pinch-hitter, followed with a bouncer to second base, and instead of being doubled off at second base, Taylor bolted to third. Then Betts drove him home.
Closer Kenley Jansen struck out the side in the ninth, dramatically changing the tone of the series.
As the eighth inning started, it was easy to imagine Atlanta ending this series in Dodger Stadium and moving on to its first World Series since 1999, when they were swept by the Yankees.
Now? The defending champion Dodgers smell blood.
“To see the old Cody back again is a great thing for the Dodgers,” Jansen said.
“Man, pure elation. Joy,” Roberts said. “I mean, it’s just hard to imagine a bigger hit that I can remember, really, just kind of what was at stake.”
Roberts knows about big moments. He stood on second base following a steal that will live forever for fans of the Boston Red Sox. It came with the Red Sox three outs from elimination, and resulted in Roberts scoring on a single by Bill Mueller to tie Game 4 of the 2004 A.L.C.S. — David Ortiz went on to win it with a home run in the 12th. Ortiz drove in the winning run in Game 5 as well and those Red Sox stormed back from a three-games-to-none deficit to beat the Yankees and eventually win the World Series.
Even with that history, Roberts saw what his players did on Tuesday as special.
“I just think that this is a team that obviously has a lot of momentum coming into this game, it’s the first game here on the road, and for us to go down 3-0 and hope for a 2004 miracle run is a tall ask,” Roberts said, before noting that Bellinger’s homer “just flipped everything and it just kind of, we’ve got a very good ball club, but we just needed that kind of shot in the arm. And I’m expecting it to carry over to tomorrow.
“But yeah, I mean, that David hit was huge and I’m forever grateful. But this is a freaking big hit. Big hit.”
James Wagner contributed reporting.