World Series Game 3: Dodgers asking a lot from slumping Cody Bellinger

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

HOUSTON – The Los Angeles Dodgers have lost consecutive games for the first time in more than a month, since back when the argument in L.A.’s finer shirts-and-shoes-optional establishments was whether the Dodgers must win the World Series or, to otherwise satisfy the championship-starved masses, merely take part.

They’re still sorting that out, three games into their first World Series in the post-America Sings Era, America’s finest era.

For the moment, they’ll have the better part of a day to brush the crumbs of Game 3 from their psyches, four hours that picked up about where Game 2 left off, starting with the five outs Yu Darvish mustered and cycling through their rookie cleanup hitter striking out for the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh times in the series.

So, this tests them all.

Cody Bellinger, at 22, on Friday night here became the second-youngest to strike out four times in a World Series game. The youngest, apparently, was Mickey Mantle. So there’s that.

He sat for a while later, long after the Houston Astros5-3 victory, long after most of his teammates had showered or eaten or both, long after a fastball from Brad Peacock had beaten him to end the eighth inning. He was in a T-shirt and gym shorts and shower shoes, looking at his phone, maybe in his head revisiting the curveballs that had finished the other three at-bats, or maybe endeavoring to forget them all.

He had been brilliant for the better part of five months, and hit capably in the National League Championship Series, and is hitless with seven strikeouts in 11 World Series at-bats. He came within a grain or two on his bat barrel of ending Game 2 in the ninth inning, seemed to chase that swing and a slightly better result in Game 3, and in any case, he need not bear the burden of Houston’s two-games-to-one advantage alone.

The Dodgers to a man agreed they’d played their poorest game since most of them could remember, and regretted it arrived in the final week of October, most of it not long after Darvish had arrived on the mound. They’d generally been too aggressive against Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr.’s curveballs, then timid in spots, which was not at all like the team that won 104 games by the end of summer, then eight of nine to get here. Through three games, which is hardly anything except all they’ve got, they are batting .161.

In the middle of it is Bellinger, the likeable and elegant first baseman with the wickedly destructive swing who is cutting his teeth when the air gets thick and the lights bright. Two days after the Dodgers’ bullpen was required to pull 21 outs, Darvish left it 19 outs, and on Saturday night the Dodgers turn to Alex Wood, a capable left-hander who has thrown 4 2/3 innings in a month. Therefore, it would seem, some offense will be required of the Dodgers, and that means leadoff hitter Chris Taylor (one for nine), team MVP Justin Turner (two for 13), occasional cleanup hitter Yasiel Puig (two for 12), and Bellinger, along with Corey Seager, have some work ahead of them.

“Honestly,” Bellinger said, “I felt good. I mean, I had a few bad at-bats today, I’ll be the first one to admit it.”

Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Cody Bellinger has picked a bad time to go into a slump. (AP)

There is the reality that this is hard, that hitting is hard, and Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander aren’t the types to foster much confidence. Along comes McCullers with his dastardly knuckle curveball, and in about the time it takes to register spin and velocity and estimated location you’re tangled up and trying to return to the dugout with some dignity. The Dodgers are asking a lot from him. He delivered a lot, for a long time, and will again, maybe soon, and what’s left is two or three or four games to find out.

“There were a couple good swings, but I think he’s just in that funk right now where he’s chasing balls out of the strike zone,” said manager Dave Roberts, whose next decision will be where to bat Bellinger in Game 4.

He later added, “It’s just trying to get Cody to slow down a little bit. I think he’s been a little too quick. And tonight you saw balls below the zone. He was on the defensive.”

In four at-bats, he saw 17 pitches. Of the first 10, nine were curveballs, all from McCullers, and nine were either thrown for strikes or swung over. The Astros clearly had come with a plan for breaking balls, as in Game 1 Bellinger struck out once on a slider, and in Game 2 he struck out twice on curveballs. In his final at-bat of Game 3, Peacock beat him with fastballs, only fastballs. Charlie Morton starts Game 4 for the Astros. He has a big fastball. His best pitch, however, is the curveball.

Where that’ll send Bellinger, in the short term, is the batting cage.

“Today,” he said, “was the first day I really felt out of place.”

For three weeks, they’d plowed through the Arizona Diamondbacks, who’d been severely diminished by their wild-card game, and the Chicago Cubs, who’d endured five games in their division series and appeared weary. Now the Dodgers are in a fight again, against a team that quite possibly is better than they are, coming off what Bellinger admitted, “Was probably not one of the great fundamental games we’ve played.” Yes, there’s plenty of introspection to go around anymore, due to a series that looked one way in the ninth inning of Game 2 and looked entirely different by the ninth inning of Game 3. It happens. It comes fast. And goes the same way.

Bellinger shrugged.

“I’m not too worried about it,” he said.