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Nightengale: Bellinger’s Fast Start Boosts Dodgers, Heartens Dad

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Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder Cody Bellinger (35) celebrates after hitting a solo home run against the Philadelphia Phillies during the ninth inning at Dodger Stadium. Photo: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

While New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge has the baseball world mesmerized with his exploits, there’s another rookie slugger quietly performing extraordinary feats himself.

He may not be hitting the ball to the moon, let alone clearing the bleachers at 496 feet, but they’re still clearing the fences.

He doesn’t lead the major leagues in home runs and RBI, and hasn’t hit a homer farther than 433 feet, but with 17 homers and 39 RBI, still has hit more homers than everyone in baseball other than you-know-who since his April 25 call-up.

He also happens to be a star rookie playing for an iconic franchise, but on the other coast, for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have the best record at 31-14.

The name is Cody Bellinger.

The son of former Yankees utilityman Clay Bellinger, Cody Bellinger leads the Dodgers in homers and RBI despite playing in just 45 games. He became the first player in franchise history to hit 11 homers in his first 32 games, and since surpassed his father’s career total of 12 homers in 135 at-bats.

“I always thought he could do this once he changed his swing,’’ Clay Bellinger, who has spent the last 11 years as a firefighter in Gilbert, Ariz., told USA TODAY Sports. “Now, if he can only get the same amount of World Series rings I got, or even more, I’ll be really happy.’’

Bellinger may have been just a utility infielder, playing in 183 career games, but he happens to have three World Series rings: playing for the Yankees in 1999 and 2000, and the 2002 Los Angeles Angels.

“Yeah, I may have him in the home run department,’’ says Cody Bellinger, 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, “but three rings? Now, that’s tough to beat. Doing that would be a dream come true.’’

Bellinger, drafted in the fourth round in 2013 by the Dodgers – three rounds and 92 selections after Judge – is the National League’s closest rookie version to Judge, but without the fanfare.

While Judge has received a major-league leading 1.89 million All-Star votes, and has Madison Avenue salivating, Bellinger isn’t even on the All-Star ballot and is barely recognized outside Chavez Ravine. It’s fine by Bellinger, who’s thrilled he at least attracted the attention of the Dodgers’ front office.

As stellar as Bellinger’s season has been in the National League, it certainly isn’t being hailed as one of the greatest in history like Judge. While Bellinger hitting .261 with a .965 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, Judge leads the American League in average (.347) and homers (22) and is second with 49 RBI to go along with his 1.181 OPS.

Yet, the Dodgers will argue that he’s just as valuable to them as Judge is to the Yankees.

“We certainly know we wouldn’t be here without him,’’ says Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, whose club has the best record in the NL, 40-25. “This is kid is a special young man. He’s a heck of a baseball player, a winning ballplayer, and he’s only going to get better.’’

Bellinger came to the Dodgers’ rescue three weeks into the season when outfielder Joc Pederson went on the DL. He promptly became the first Dodgers’ player in history to hit five homers in his first 11 games. He was shuffled to first base when Adrian Gonzalez went on the DL with a herniated disc for the first time in his career. Gonzalez returned, but Bellinger stayed, and he was inserted as the Dodgers’ everyday left fielder. Now, Bellinger is expected to be back again at first base with Gonzalez returning to the DL on Tuesday with what he called a herniated disc.

Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder Cody Bellinger (35) follows through during the fifth inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Photo: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

“This guy is a great athlete,’’ Dodgers veteran second baseman Chase Utley says. “I think you could put him anywhere, and he’d be OK, just based on what kind of athlete he is.’’

The Dodgers, if truth be known, actually saw this athleticism when he was in Little League. Really. This is where Logan White, the Dodgers’ former vice president, saw him playing alongside his own son in Chandler, Ariz. White followed him through high school, and when the draft came along, told former GM Ned Colletti that this was the perfect fourth-round pick. Bellinger may have hit just one homer his senior year, but White believed that he would fill out his 6-foot-4 frame, and eventually hit for power.

“I wish I was this good of a scout to predict this,’’ says White, now the San Diego Padres pro scouting director. “We certainly liked him, but I didn’t think he would run into this kind of power. He was just a skinny dude, maybe 6-2, 175 pounds, but he had a beautiful swing.

“But to be honest, a lot of it was luck. I was able to see him grow up. He was in my back yard at the hitting cage. Just everything worked out.’’

Bellinger left high school as a smooth, left-handed hitting first baseman who sprayed the ball to all fields. Little changed his first two years in the minors, hitting just four homers after 98 games. It was time, he said, for a severe overhaul.

He closed his batting stance, tilted his bat toward the pitcher before each pitch, created back-spin on balls, and the power immediately flourished. He hit 30 homers in 2015 at Class A Rancho Cucamonga, 26 homers last year at Class AA Tulsa and AAA Oklahoma City, and now he’s doing it on the big stage.

“I don’t know if you can ever envision 30, 35 homers a year,’’ Clay Bellinger says, “but I always envisioned a lot more than he did in high school. He was always a line-drive hitter. So I thought that if he can find a way to change that swing path, that would change.

“Well, those same line drives now are going over the fence.’’

Says Cody, breaking into a shy, sheepish grin: It’s a crazy game, isn’t it? I was just trying to do what I could to have a successful year, and this happens.’’

Bellinger, perhaps the favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year award, actually reminds the Dodgers of last year’s rookie-of-the year winner, shortstop Corey Seager with his quiet demeanor, constantly listening to the veterans while rarely speaking.

“He’s got a lot of similar qualities as Corey coming up,’’ Utley says. “He’s really quiet, humble, but confident on the baseball field. He wants to learn as much as possible.’’

Says Dodgers infielder/outfielder Kike Hernandez: “We’ve always had a very big group of young talented kids in the minor leagues. (Pitcher) Julio Urias was the one everyone talked about. But Bellinger had that explosive bat speed, and that explosive pop. So to be honest, for those of us who were watching him, you knew he had the ability to be a very special player.’’

It took awhile for the Dodgers to believe it themselves. They tried five starting left fielders before Bellinger. Finally, they gave him a shot, and now Bellinger has outlasted them all.

He certainly appears here to stay.

“When I got called up, I kept telling myself I was going to take it day by day, and not worry about how long it would last,’’ says Bellinger, who turns 22 at the All-Star break. “Well, it’s worked so far, so I’m not going to change anything. I just want to help this team win any way I can, just like my Dad.

“It’s funny, of all the games I went to as a kid, the ones I remember most of all are those World Series games in New York, especially when they beat the Mets in 2000. That’s what sticks out most to me, going to that parade, and seeing his World Series rings.

“I’d sure like to get one of those of my own.’’

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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