‘Mad Max’ fastest Dodger to reach 20-HR mark

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LOS ANGELES — Max Muncy was out for breakfast here recently when a fan approached him, said hello, asked for a photo and called him “Mad Max,” a nickname that is slowly starting to build momentum. It marked the first time someone had actually recognized Muncy in public. No, not just in L.A.

“First time ever,” Muncy specified late Tuesday night, moments after propelling his Los Angeles Dodgers to an 8-3 victory with another uplifting performance.

Muncy, who managed only five home runs in his first 96 major league games and spent all of last season in the minors, went deep two more times in the second of a three-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He reached 20 home runs in only his 183rd at-bat of 2018, making him the fastest to get there in Dodgers history, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.

“I never would’ve thought I could hit this many home runs in this short amount of time,” said Muncy, who broke the record set by Cody Bellinger in 189 at-bats last season.

Muncy’s performance was part of another onslaught by a Dodgers team that blasted 55 home runs throughout June and scored 17 runs on the second day of July. The Dodgers totaled six home runs on Tuesday, giving Clayton Kershaw enough support to notch his second win in his third start since coming off the disabled list.

The Dodgers have won 69.8 percent of the time since falling 10 games under .500 on May 16. In that 43-game stretch, they lead the majors in OPS (.824) and rank third in ERA (3.17), improving their record to 46-39 while lifting themselves to only 1½ games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks for first place in the National League West.

And Muncy has been the biggest reason why.

“He’s putting up All-Star numbers,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “That’s just the way it is. That’s the truth. He’s taking advantage of an opportunity, and it’s good to see.”

The Oakland Athletics tossed Muncy aside in the spring of 2017. He remained unemployed for a handful of weeks, then signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers in late April, spent the rest of that season in Triple-A — batting .309 with 12 home runs in 320 at-bats — and was only called up this year after two injuries to third basemen.

Sixty-three games into his season, Muncy sports a 1.069 OPS that would be the third highest in baseball if he had enough playing time to qualify. He leads the Dodgers with 3.2 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs metrics, even though he didn’t really earn an everyday role until May.

“It’s incredible,” said Kershaw, who gave up two runs on four hits in six innings, walking none and striking out two. “We knew Max was a good hitter, but I don’t think anybody in the world would expect this. He’s the best hitter in baseball right now. I don’t think anybody could argue with that. I don’t know how close he is to be up on the leaderboard and all that stuff in terms of number of at-bats, but he’s gotta be at least in the running for an All-Star spot if he doesn’t already have one.”

Joc Pederson hit the first pitch the Dodgers saw for a home run against Pirates starter Ivan Nova, and Muncy belted one right after him. It marked the third time this season that the Dodgers’ first two hitters went back-to-back, a feat that has only been accomplished a combined four times by the 29 other teams.

“We knew Max was a good hitter, but I don’t think anybody in the world would expect this. He’s the best hitter in baseball right now. I don’t think anybody could argue with that.”

Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw

Muncy recorded three hits, Chris Taylor — last year’s Muncy with regard to sudden emergence — finished a single shy of the cycle, and the Dodgers notched nine extra-base hits in back-to-back games for the first time since 1929.

Muncy has now homered once every 9.3 at-bats. For comparison’s sake, the three all-time home run leaders — Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth — didn’t come close to hitting home runs at that rate for their careers. The 27-year-old credited a restructured approach, which has him crouching lower into his stance and getting more upward trajectory with his swing.

“I’ve always felt the power was there,” Muncy said. “It’s just my swing wasn’t built for hitting home runs before, whereas now, I feel like I get myself in a better position to use it.”

Muncy has now woven himself into the fabric of a Dodgers team that fell one win shy of a World Series championship last fall. The Dodger Stadium organist often plays the Beastie Boys hit “Brass Monkey” when Muncy bats. Playing off that, fans have designed T-shirts that identify him as “That Funky Muncy.”

Now, it seems, Muncy is deserving of serious consideration for the All-Star Game, a thought that is becoming too enticing to ignore.

“I’m trying not to,” Muncy said when asked if he has thought about the possibility of being an All-Star. “It’s hard, but I’m trying not to.”

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