June 12, 2024

The World Series ring that he won with the Atlanta Braves in 2021 eased his pain, but Freddie Freeman still feels the sting of the three-run home run Will Smith hit to swing the 2020 National League Championship Series toward the Dodgers and the solo shot Cody Bellinger hit to win it.

Freeman’s Braves had a three-games-to-one advantage in the best-of-seven series and a 2-1 lead in Game 5 when Smith, the Dodgers catcher, stepped to the plate against Will Smith, the Atlanta reliever, with two on and two outs in the sixth inning.

The batter won the rare battle of namesakes, Smith driving a full-count fastball into the left-field seats at neutral-site Globe Life Field in Texas to give the Dodgers a 4-2 lead in an eventual 7-3 win.

Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler outdueled Braves left-hander Max Fried in a 3-1 Game 6 win, and Bellinger’s two-out homer snapped a seventh-inning tie and propelled the Dodgers to a pennant-clinching 4-3 win in Game 7. The Dodgers went on to win a six-game World Series over Tampa Bay.

“The Will Smith homer was devastating, and Cody’s home run was, too,” said Freeman, the former Braves first baseman who is in his second season with the Dodgers. “Every postseason, you can pick out a hit, a play, and say, ‘This is how we got there, this is how we moved on, or this is how we won the World Series.’

“But those two-out RBIs in the playoffs, they’re huge. That’s how you can deflate a whole team on the other side. They’re like a killer to a defense and can really change the momentum of a series.”

The Dodgers scored 59 of their 101 runs in the 2020 postseason with two outs — ”I feel like 58 of them were against us,” Freeman joked — and they rode the clutch again this season with a major league-leading 359 two-out RBIs and a .791 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with two outs.

The NL West champions also ranked second in the league with 85 two-out homers and 237 two-out walks, and they led the majors with 291 runs and were tied for second with a .771 OPS in the seventh inning or later, a six-month body of work under pressure the Dodgers hope will carry over into the playoffs.

“I think you just have to keep doing exactly what we’ve been doing, keep putting together quality at-bats and not try to change anything or put more emphasis on one thing or another,” Dodgers hitting coach Aaron Bates said.

“I think a lot of that is your mentality. If you look at all those situations as opportunities to score more runs, an opportunity to drive in a run, and not as pressure situations, it changes the mindset.”

Bates said that neither he nor co-hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc encourage hitters in batting practice or video preparation sessions to change their approach with two outs.

The team’s two-out success, both he and manager Dave Roberts say, is the result of a consistent overall approach to never give away at-bats or give in to a pitcher and a sound two-strike approach to shorten your swing and take what the pitcher gives you.

“This team values getting a hit, a base hit, more than any team that we’ve had, collectively,” Roberts said. “Two outs, guy on second base and you’ve got the driver in your hand, and you’re 100 yards away from the pin, doesn’t play. But if you can still get a base hit …

“We have hit some homers in those spots, but for the most part, we get a knock. It’s not about exit velocity or launch angle; it’s about putting the barrel on the baseball, hitting the outfield grass and driving in a run. Our guys, top to bottom, really understand that.”

Dodgers designated hitter J.D. Martinez (28) celebrates after his three-run home run.

Dodgers designated hitter J.D. Martinez, right, celebrating a home run against the Detroit Tigers on Sept. 18 with Mookie Betts, led the majors in two-out RBIs with 53.

(Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

The Dodgers set the tone in the first two weeks of the season, scoring five two-out runs in an 8-2 win over Arizona on March 30 and rallying for seven two-out runs in the fifth inning of a 13-4 rout of Colorado on April 3, J.D. Martinez (two-run single), James Outman (two-run triple) and Jason Heyward (two-run homer) providing the big blows.

David Peralta authored one of the most clutch moments of the season on April 15, when his pinch-hit, two-run single off Michael Fulmer in the bottom of the ninth lifted the Dodgers to a 2-1 walk-off win over the Chicago Cubs.

The Dodgers carried that theme right through to Sunday’s regular-season finale, scoring all five of their runs in a 5-2 win at San Francisco with two outs in the sixth inning, Kiké Hernández highlighting the rally with a three-run homer.

“Those two-out RBIs are back-breakers for the other side,” Bates said. “We have this relentless approach of keeping pressure on the other team and a good veteran group of guys that don’t give at-bats away.”

It helps to have three of baseball’s most experienced and professional hitters in Mookie Betts, Freeman and Martinez at the top of the lineup, and it’s no surprise that trio of sluggers has been the team’s most productive group in the clutch.

Martinez hit .325 with a 1.052 OPS, 15 homers, 10 doubles and a major league-leading 53 RBIs with two outs and .367 (22 for 60) with a 1.216 OPS and 39 RBIs with two outs and runners in scoring position.

Freeman hit .344 with a 1.059 OPS, 12 homers, 14 doubles and 45 RBIs with two outs and .397 (23 for 58) with a 1.142 OPS and 35 RBIs with two outs and runners in scoring position.

Betts hit .313 with a 1.018 OPS with 12 homers, 10 doubles and 47 RBIs with two outs and .319 (23 for 72) with a 1.062 OPS and 39 RBIs with two outs and runners in scoring position.

“I just try to hit the middle part of the field,” Martinez said of his approach with two outs and runners in scoring position. “For me, I think the bases are empty and I’m trying to hit the ball up the middle. Play a little pepper and put-the-barrel-on-the-ball type thing.

“You have to shorten up sometimes to do it, but there are times I say, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a guy on third base, I gotta get him in.’ That puts a lot of pressure on me as opposed to, ‘There’s a guy on third, put the bat on the ball and hit it up the middle.’ ”

Smith (.252 average, .811 OPS, eight homers, 26 RBIs) has been solid in two-out situations, as have platoon players Chris Taylor (.263, .842 OPS, five homers, 26 RBIs), Jason Heyward (.255, .787 OPS, four homers, 12 RBIs) and Peralta (.268, .736 OPS, three homers, 23 RBIs).

Rookie center fielder James Outman has hit six of his 23 homers and driven in 25 of his 70 runs with two outs, and shortstop Miguel Rojas has hit three of his five homers and driven in 14 of his 31 runs with two outs.

The only regular whose numbers dip precipitously with two outs is third baseman Max Muncy, who has an .808 OPS, 36 homers and 105 RBIs on the season but hit .161 with a .653 OPS, seven homers and 26 RBIs with two outs.

“I think we have so many veteran guys in our offense that just want to win, so they do anything they can to win,” Freeman said. “Like, I don’t care if I go 0 for 4 if I move Mookie over to third base and we get four sacrifice flies out of it. You get two strikes, guys cut down on their swing and try to put the ball in play.

“I think that’s just the mentality we have as a group. It’s a winning mentality. It’s not a selfish mentality. It’s a pick-me-up offense.”

The big question now: Can the Dodgers pick up in the NL Division Series against the Milwaukee Brewers or Arizona Diamondbacks where they left off in the regular season?

A Dodgers offense that led baseball in runs (847), OPS (.775) and average with runners in scoring position (.272) during a franchise-record 111-win season in 2022 fell flat in the NLDS, hitting .147 (five for 34) with runners in scoring position and .227 with a .704 OPS overall in a four-game loss to the San Diego Padres.

“I wish I could tell you the formula for the playoffs, but there isn’t one,” Freeman said. “It’s really who can be hot, or if four or five guys can be hot at the same time. With two outs and guys in scoring position, you’ve got to realize that all the pressure is not on you in the box. There’s pressure on the pitcher, as well.

“Some guys go up there thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this hit, I’ve got to do something,’ and that’s going to get you out of your game. It’s more just being even-keeled. I think we have a lot of guys who have been through it.

“You’re facing [No. 1 and No. 2 starters], the best pitching, you just have to hope you get those big hits in those situations and that as a group, collectively, you can do it for four weeks. If we do, we’ll move on. If we don’t, we’ll go home.”

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