Why Gabe Kapler won't second-guess Camilo Doval's slider strategy

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Why Kapler won't second-guess Doval's slider strategy in ninth originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SAN FRANCISCO -- As Cody Bellinger walked to the plate with two runners on base in the top of the ninth inning and the score all tied up on Thursday night, there was one thing you could hear a fan chanting from the stands outside the press box. 

"MVP! MVP! MVP!" 

Was he being serious? Trying his hand at comedy? Or being downright facetious? 

We don't know the answer to those all-important questions. What we do know is the 2019 NL MVP who hit .165 in the 2021 regular season, did indeed play like an MVP when the Los Angeles Dodgers needed him most against the Giants in the National League Division Series. Bellinger answered the fan's call and crushed an RBI single 101 mph off an 88 mph slider from Giants young flamethrower Camilo Doval. 

Bellinger's sharp single to right fielder Austin Slater turned the score to 2-1 in favor of the Dodgers. One run would be the difference between the two rivals who were separated by one win in the regular season and came into Game 5 of the NLDS with 109 total wins each. 

"It wasn't about mechanics, it was just about fight," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "It was me vs. you, Cody vs. Doval, who's got tremendous stuff, and he got a slider that backed up and stayed through the middle of the field and got a huge hit.

"So, like I've said, Cody's grown a lot because of this adversity and for him to come up with a big hit, very happy for him."

Doval, who hits 100 mph with ease, entered the game with two outs in the top of the eighth inning. He needed just one pitch -- a 100.2 mph fastball -- to get Trea Turner to fly out to Slater. But in the ninth, Doval turned to his slider. 

Dodgers catcher Will Smith led off the ninth with a groundout to shortstop Brandon Crawford. Smith's at-bat consisted of four straight sliders. Doval then hit Justin Turner, who was 1-for-20 in the series at the time, with a 100 mph fastball off his elbow guard. After that, it was back to the slider. Doval threw five straight sliders to center fielder Gavin Lux before Lux turned on a fastball, putting Turner in scoring position. 

The sliders continued, four straight in fact, as Bellinger's single became the difference for the Dodgers.

It seemed curious to see Doval go so slider-heavy, but his manager didn't mind the strategy when it was all said and done, especially with the chance to get a grounder for an inning-ending double play. 

"I actually did think he had a fastball and I thought the slider was -- Bellinger wasn't able to get up underneath it until that one swing," Kapler said. "So I thought it was a fine pitch call. The slider's been an effective pitch for him for quite some time. Fastball's been an effective pitch as well. 

"So, not going to second-guess the pitch call there."

Doval did actually throw more sliders than fastballs this season. Coming into Thursday night, he threw his slider 58.4 percent of the time, compared to 41.6 percent for his four-seamer. Opposing batters hit .167 with 31 strikeouts against his slider. Bellinger hit .180 against sliders this season, striking out 26.6 percent of the times he saw the pitch.

He also saw five sliders while on deck and four in the batter's box, and on Doval's 13th and final slider of the night, Bellinger slashed it to right field and raised his right arm in celebration.

Bellinger wound up batting .267 for the series (4-for-15) and produced two of the biggest hits for the Dodgers.

Even with his struggles over the last two seasons, Bellinger's still a power threat whenever he comes to the plate. But in a two-strike count against Doval, who hadn't allowed an earned run since May 15, Bellinger went as old-school as it gets. He choked up, way up, and was thinking one thing only: Get the bat on the ball. 

Though he said it isn't something he practices, Bellinger's own version of Pepper played out perfectly. 

"At that moment with JT on second, just tried to keep the momentum going and literally just tried to stay simple and stay within myself," Bellinger said.

As the Dodgers move on to face the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS for the second straight year, the Giants face a long offseason with a whole lot of questions, no matter how much they exceeded expectations. For Doval, the Giants know he has a long career ahead of him and will be a huge piece to a championship puzzle they're trying to build. 

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"The first thing I did was I went in and gave him a hug," Giants starting pitcher Logan Webb said. "I think that's the first thing he needs to know is how big a part of the team that he's going to be in the future and to not let that get his confidence down because it's crazy to see how calm he is when he comes in the game, and I don't think that's going to change. 

"But I hope this doesn't get him down at all."