For 63 games Cody Bellinger looked anything like the player that took home the hardware for the 2019 National League MVP award.
He picked the perfect time to return to form.
Bellinger belted a home run and then stole one away from Fernando Tatis Jr., as the Los Angeles Dodgers held on to beat the San Diego Padres, 6-5, in Game 2 of the National League Division Series at Globe Life Field on Wednesday night. The Dodgers now lead the series 2-0.
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"Great players make great plays in the biggest moments," said Dodgers' manager Dave Roberts about Bellinger. "That's what happened right there. It was a game changing play."
San Diego knew that if they were going to even their best of five series with the rival Dodgers they would have to do something they haven't done many times over the last 10 years: beat Clayton Kershaw.
Starting for the first time in the home ballpark of the team he grew up idolizing, Kershaw struck out six in six innings to earn the win.
"We won a playoff game. It could have been in Timbuktu as long as we win," said Kershaw about pitching in his hometown. "I was able to grind it out through six and thankfully we got the win."
The Padres had an aggressive approach against Kershaw right out of the gate. San Diego hitters swung at the first pitch almost every at-bat, and it paid off when they struck first in the second inning.
Tommy Pham placed a first-pitch fastball into right field for the Padres first hit of the game. Five pitchers later, Pham scored on an RBI double to the right-center gap by Wil Myers and the Padres had a 1-0 lead.
But then they wilted.
The Dodgers responded in the third inning with back-to-back singles by A.J. Pollock and Austin Barnes. Both runners would score two batters later when Corey Seager smacked a two-run double down the right field line to give the Dodgers the lead.
Max Muncy scored Seager with a two-out RBI single and the Dodgers led 3-1 after three.
Bellinger broke out of his season-long slump when he belted a 79MPH change up to straightaway center for the first home run of the Division Series, giving Kershaw a three-run cushion.
"I wasn't necessarily looking for it, but I saw it was a changeup I knew it was going to be low, and I just tried to stay through it as much as I could," said Bellinger of the home run. "I haven't even homered in batting practice yet, so it was nice to see it go over the wall."
Lightning rarely strikes twice, but it happened to Kershaw in his hometown on Wednesday night.
Kershaw allowed back-to-back home runs to Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer to leadoff the sixth inning, giving Dodger fans nightmarish flashbacks of Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS when he did the same to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto that tied the game.
"I came out in the 6th and didn't have my stuff the way I wanted to," said Kershaw. "I felt fine, but the ball just wasn't coming out the way it was earlier in the game."
The back-to-back solo shots brought the Padres dugout back to life, as they banged on the padded railing and yelled "Let's Go!" at each other as Kershaw stood frozen in a familiar pose: keeled over, hands on his knees, stunned.
Kershaw settled down and got out of the inning, passing the baton to his bullpen where drama would inevitably await.
In the top of the seventh inning, and the tying run on second base, Brusdar Graterol threw a 99 MPH sinker that Tatis Jr. sent to straightaway center.
Belliger broke back on the ball immediately but as he reached the warning track he knew he had run out of room. At the last second he leaped and timed his jump perfectly, taking the go ahead homer away from Tatis Jr., preserving the Dodgers 4-3 lead.
"I knew he hit it good and in my head I knew it was either gone, or that maybe I would get to the wall and have a chance for it," said Bellinger. "I got to the fence and tried to time the jump.That was a big catch. I'm just glad that I came up with it."
According to STATS, Bellinger is the first player since 2012 to both hit a homer and rob a homer in the same postseason game.
The Dodgers restored their three-run lead minutes later as Austin Barnes walked, Seager singled, and both advanced on a double steal. A sac fly and another RBI single for Muncy gave the Dodgers a 6-3 lead.
"It was a heads up play by Mookie and Corey," said Roberts of the double steal that turned out to be one of the game's biggest plays. "We know these guys well. That was all Mookie and Corey. In that situation it turned out to be the difference in the game."
The Dodgers doubled-down on the drama when beguiled closer Kenley Jansen was unable to close the game out in the 9th. Jansen issued a walk, a double, and an RBI single, surrendering two runs before leaving the game with the winning run at the plate in Tatis Jr.
"I thought there was some good throws in there. It was just a lot for him. I know that he's disappointed as well," said Roberts of Jansen, who was then asked if he would remain in the closer role. "I'm going to keep thinking through it."
Joe Kelly earned the save, but not without more drama. Kelly walked Tatis Jr. and Machado to load the bases for Eric Hosmer. Kelly induced Hosmer to ground out to end the game, but it was Bellinger's heroics that put the Padres on the brink of elimination and the Dodgers one win away from a third trip to the NLCS in three years.
""It's going to take a while to wind down from that one," said Bellinger after the victory. "That's postseason baseball right there."