Cody Bellinger skidded into second base like a kid on a slip-and-slide, a 22-year-old rookie enjoying the World Series for the first time in four games. He leapt to his feet and banged his hands together. Inside the Dodgers dugout, moments after Bellinger’s ninth-inning double paved the way for a 6-2 victory over the Astros in Game 4 of the World Series, his teammates responded with glee.
Bellinger looked stoic. Dirt caked his uniform. Lost for so long, he found himself at an opportune time for the Dodgers, who have evened this series at 2-2. A double by Bellinger in the seventh led to his team’s first run. His next hit put his team ahead and opened the door for a five-run flood.
“Every day you see him grow a little more,” starting pitcher Alex Wood said. “To see him break through was awesome.”
After a sacrifice fly by Austin Barnes padded the lead, Joc Pederson thundered a three-run homer to mute the 43,322 fans at Minute Maid Park. In his first outing since blowing a save in Game 2, closer Kenley Jansen surrendered a solo home run to Astros third baseman Alex Bregman. It was only the second hit of the game for the Astros.
A pitcher’s duel ratcheted up the tension beneath the roof of this ballpark. Wood did not allow a hit until the sixth inning, when Astros outfielder George Springer homered. Houston starter Charlie Morton suppressed the Dodgers until the seventh, when Bellinger recorded his first hit of the World Series and Logan Forsythe tied the game with an RBI single.
Wood pulled his team out of a pit dug by Yu Darvish in Game 3, shielded a tired bullpen from overexposure and kept the Dodgers from falling two games behind the Astros. The offense slumbered at the outset before awakening late. The team turns to Clayton Kershaw for Game 5 on Sunday in a Game 1 rematch with Astros ace Dallas Keuchel. No matter what, the Series will return to Los Angeles on Tuesday for Game 6.
“We’ve got a three-game series now, and we’ve got our guy on the mound tomorrow,” outfielder Chris Taylor said. “We’re right where we want to be.”
The confidence stems from more than Kershaw. The emergence of Bellinger adds to the equation. Bellinger revitalized the Dodgers offense when he was called up in April. He boomed 39 home runs and earned a spot on the All-Star team. As he slumped through this World Series, his teammates and coaches simplified the message directed his way.
“Swing at strikes,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “Take balls. Have fun.”
The last element felt elusive when Saturday began. The afternoon started with Rob Manfred, baseball’s commissioner, sorting through a mess. He met with Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel to discuss a punishment after Gurriel made a gesture mocking Darvish’s Japanese heritage. Manfred chose to suspend Gurriel for five games, to be enforced in the 2018 regular season.
Gurriel remained in Houston’s lineup on Saturday. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, the son of a Japanese mother, described himself as “surprised” and “disappointed” by Gurriel’s actions. Even so, he did not mind Gurriel remaining eligible for the postseason.
“I expect to beat them with him in the lineup,” Roberts said. “I don’t want any asterisk with him not being in there.”
There were other consequences from Friday. Because Darvish could not complete the second inning, Roberts used reliever Kenta Maeda for nearly three innings, long enough to make Maeda unavailable for Saturday. The Dodgers required a lengthy outing from Wood. He had thrown only 42/3 innings since Sept. 26.
The offense’s early malaise forced Wood to traverse a tightrope. Facing Astros starter Charlie Morton, the group looked feeble in the face of his darting two-seam fastballs. Morton mixed in curveballs, cutters and diving split-fingered fastballs to destabilize the Dodgers. “You don’t get much better stuff than that,” Wood said.
Wood matched Morton into the sixth. He lacked his counterpart’s precision. He battled from behind in the count. He challenged the Astros and gobbled up outs. “He was hitting his spot, keeping them off balance,” Bellinger said.
After five innings, Wood had thrown 73 pitches. When he returned for the sixth, reliever Brandon Morrow was loose. Wood retired Marwin Gonzalez, a switch hitter, and Brian McCann, a left-handed hitter, to start off. As the right-handed Springer walked to the plate, Roberts stayed in his dugout.
Springer treats left-handed pitchers like Wood with malice. He posted a .972 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against them during the regular season. Wood becomes slightly less effective when facing hitters a third time. Roberts opted to trust his starter. “I thought Alex earned the opportunity — obviously, the way he was throwing the baseball, didn’t give up any hard contact — to continue to go,” he said.
Wood fell behind in the count with three straight balls. He spotted a fastball at the knees for a strike. Then he flipped a curveball that split the plate. Springer hammered it over the Crawford Boxes in left field to give Houston the lead.
The homer landed like an anvil on the Dodgers, who had been sleepwalking since the final innings of Game 2. They required a jolt from an unlikely source. It came from Bellinger, who had gone hitless in his first 13 at-bats of this series. He had struck out eight times. He appeared incapable of tracking offspeed pitches, flailing at the air.
Seeking a solution, he got advice from his coaches. Before batting practice, he considered how veterans like Forsythe and Andre Ethier warm up, stroking ball after ball into the opposite field. Bellinger preferred to lift the ball to the pull side. On Saturday afternoon, he decided to ape his older teammates.
Later in the night, Morton offered Bellinger a chance to test his modified approach. Morton left a curveball up in the zone. Bellinger stroked it off the left-field wall for a double. At second base, Bellinger gestured to his dugout to retrieve the baseball to commemorate his achievement. “I just had a super sigh of relief, that’s for sure,” he said.
The double ended Morton’s night. In came reliever Will Harris, who fed Forsythe a 91-mph fastball. Forsythe ripped it into center field to bring Bellinger home and knot the score.
Bellinger made sure the tie didn’t last. In the ninth, Houston closer Ken Giles sparked a fire by giving up a single to Corey Seager and a walk to Justin Turner. Bellinger laced a 95-mph fastball for another opposite-field double. He was back, just in time for his team.
“Sometimes in the postseason, you want to try to do too much, and that’s what I was doing,” Bellinger said. “Today I made an effort of not doing too much, and when you do that, you get two hits, sometimes. It’s a crazy game.”
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