LOS ANGELES -- Max Muncy roamed foul territory at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday afternoon, chatting with teammates while wearing a blue T-shirt, black slacks and a bulky brace on his left elbow, the one that sustained a gruesome injury on a close play at first base during Sunday's regular-season finale.
Muncy's ulnar collateral ligament is intact and thus won't require surgery. But the Los Angeles Dodgers' first baseman won't be available for Wednesday's National League Wild Card Game against the St. Louis Cardinals or for the ensuing division series against the San Francisco Giants, should L.A. advance. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he is "still trying to hold out a glimmer of hope" for a late October return, but that also seems far-fetched. Muncy is hopeful, too, for what it's worth.
"I have to be," he said. "If I'm not hopeful, then it's gonna be a rough couple of weeks for me."
The Dodgers, coming off a franchise-record-tying 106-win regular season, will also navigate through these playoffs without their longtime ace. Clayton Kershaw, a free agent at season's end, suffered a recurrence of the elbow and forearm soreness that robbed him of two-plus months earlier this season, but Roberts said his UCL is also sound. Tommy John surgery, which would force Kershaw to miss the entire 2022 season, is "not on the table," Roberts said.
In spite of Kershaw's absence, and the need for a wild-card game, the Dodgers' pitching sets up nicely for a potential NLDS. Walker Buehler and Julio Urias would line up to pitch Games 1 and 2, respectively, on Friday and Saturday, and Max Scherzer, who will oppose Adam Wainwright on Wednesday, could come back to pitch on normal rest in Monday's Game 3.
The Dodgers, of course, have to get there first. And before that, they have to decide who will replace Muncy at first base. Albert Pujols, Cody Bellinger and Matt Beaty all took groundballs at the position during Tuesday's workout. Bellinger, a left-handed hitter who has the platoon advantage against a righty like Wainwright, will probably be in the lineup regardless. If he starts at first base, the Dodgers would use either Gavin Lux or Chris Taylor -- both of whom recently recovered from neck injuries -- in center.
But Scherzer's fly-ball tendencies might make Roberts more willing to utilize Bellinger's defense in center field, leaving either Pujols or Beaty. Pujols, a dominant force for the Cardinals through his first 11 years in the big leagues, has started only three games since the beginning of September and has thrived mostly against lefties all season. But he has a 1.483 OPS against fastballs thrown no harder than 90 mph, a potential fit against Wainwright's average fastball of 89 mph.
Muncy was a legitimate MVP candidate for most of this season and finished batting .249/.368/.527 with 36 home runs and 94 RBIs in 144 games. He made his second All-Star team in the process. Regardless of who replaces him, the Dodgers will miss his left-handed bat and elite plate discipline in the middle of their lineup.
"He's a cornerstone of our offense," Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. "The at-bat quality we're certainly gonna miss. But we still have a pretty dynamic lineup, and I think the best way to look at it is it's an opportunity for someone to step up and take good at-bats for us."
Muncy texted his teammates recently to inform them that he'd be with them every step of the way this postseason, regardless of his on-field availability. He said he initially suffered a dislocated elbow on the play, when the Milwaukee Brewers' Jace Peterson ran through his left arm on a wide throw from Dodgers catcher Will Smith, but that it popped back in as he rolled on the dirt.
"It was a very scary moment," Muncy said. "I definitely felt like my arm wasn't there."
Muncy will learn more about the impending rehab process over the next couple of days. He has found himself constantly going back to watch video of the play. He keeps hearing a distinct noise.
"I hear it too much -- my elbow popping," Muncy said. "Not a lot of good memories from what should've been a great day."