Among the most overlooked aspects of the 2021 Los Angeles Dodgers is that they have been playing good baseball -- though perhaps not to the level of their outsized expectations -- despite minimal production from their three best position players: Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager.
On Wednesday night, in a 14-3 rout of the St. Louis Cardinals, two of those three turned in their best performances of the year. Bellinger drove in six runs, all within an 11-run bottom of the first inning, and Betts added three hits as the host Dodgers improved to 33-23, putting them 1½ games back in a tightly contested National League West.
The 11 runs marked the Dodgers' highest-scoring regular-season inning since they moved to L.A.
The last time the Dodgers scored 11 or more runs in a regular-season inning was Aug. 8, 1954, four years before the team left Brooklyn, New York, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau (though they also did that in last year's postseason).
Bellinger became the first player, on any team, to drive in six runs in the first inning since David Ortiz did it for the Boston Red Sox in 2008. No player has driven in more than that in the first inning during the expansion era, which dates back to 1961.
The Dodgers didn't commit their first out against Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez until his opponent, the No. 9-hitting Walker Buehler, struck out. Betts began the game with a ground-rule double. Three batters later, Bellinger lined a two-run single. After run-scoring singles from Gavin Lux, Zach McKinstry and Betts, Bellinger was suddenly up to bat again, this time with the bases loaded and two outs.
"You never expect to get two at-bats in the first inning," Bellinger said. "After the first one, and the lineup started to turn over, you're like, 'Oh, OK, I gotta lock back in mentally,' because you never know what can happen."
The Cardinals replaced Martinez with right-hander Jake Woodford, and on the fourth pitch of the at-bat, a 3-0 fastball on the inside part of the plate, Bellinger hit a towering shot that bounced off the top of the fence in right field for his sixth career grand slam.
Bellinger, the 2019 National League MVP, missed 46 games with a hairline fracture in his left leg. He returned Saturday and recorded just one hit in his first 12 at-bats, striking out eight times, but said he was "still feeling pretty good at the plate."
"I was just missing some pitches, but that comes with routine and reps," Bellinger added. "I knew I was close."
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts knew Betts was close when he worked a walk while pinch-hitting in the ninth inning on Saturday. Betts was batting only .240/.351/.427 before then, giving him a .778 OPS that stood 117 points below his career average heading into 2021. Lingering back and shoulder issues offered at least a partial explanation for his struggles.
But Betts reached base in five of 10 plate appearances in the two games that followed his pinch-hit walk. He was robbed of a walk-off two-run double in the second of those games, then followed with a 3-for-4 night in which he drove in two runs and scored two others.
Seager is still out with a broken right hand, an injury that could keep him on the injured list until the All-Star break, but maybe Bellinger and Betts are back to being who they have always been.
Said Roberts with a smile, "It's very helpful for our ballclub."