LOS ANGELES — There are hidden gems buried all over the baseball landscape, unrecognized talents and discarded bodies just looking for an opportunity, the chance to prove themselves, knowing that maybe all it takes is a tweak to your hitting mechanics and just enough confidence and you can become the driving force behind winning the first game of a World Series.
Sometimes changing your bat can help as well.
Taylor hit the first offering from Dallas Keuchel in the bottom of the first, ripping an 88-mph inside fastball out to left field for a 1-0 Dodgers lead. Turner stepped in against Keuchel in the sixth in a tie game with Taylor at first base following a two-out walk.
After striking out in the first and fouling out in the fourth, Turner switched bats, going from a heavier 34½-ounce bat back to his usual 33½-ounce piece of lumber.
“Good thing I did,” he said, “because I didn’t get beat a third time.”
The first pitch was a cutter inside. Turner swung and missed at another inside cutter. The 1-1 pitch was a fastball low and way, just off the corner, the pitch Keuchel makes a living on against right-handers. He wants you to chase it, pound it into the ground. Turner, so good at staying disciplined in the strike zone, took the pitch. Except umpire Phil Cuzzi called it a strike.
“I thought it was a ball from my perspective,” said on-deck hitter Cody Bellinger, who said there was a little noise coming from the Dodgers dugout after the pitch. “In the heat of the moment you get excited, but you can’t let it get to you, and Turner didn’t.”
Turner looked back at Cuzzi. “Just asked Phil where he had that pitch,” Turner said. “He said it was a good pitcher’s pitch. I told him I thought it was a little low and off the plate. And that was it. You step out and you take a deep breath and regroup.”
He did exactly that, even though that pitch could have changed the outcome of the plate appearance. In 2017, after falling behind 1-2 in the count, batters hit .173 with a .506 OPS, but after the count reaches 2-1, they hit .254 with an .835 OPS. This is probably a good time, however, to point out that Turner led all major league hitters with a .279 average with two strikes.
Keuchel threw over twice to first base and then threw another cutter, this one also inside — but not far enough inside — and also up in the zone. Turner launched a fly ball to left-center, which just sailed over the fence for a two-run home run and was the decisive blow in the Dodgers’ 3-1 victory.
Bellinger’s reaction: “I threw up my hands like everyone else in the stadium.”
Turner and Taylor have something else in common aside from the Dodgers finding them off the baseball scrap heap. Both re-tooled their swings to focus on hitting the ball in the air more often and rejuvenated their careers in doing so. Turner went from backup infielder to All-Star third baseman. Taylor started the season in Triple-A with one career home run in the majors, and ended it hitting .288 with 21 home runs.
“When I was in New York, I was just trying to survive and just take quality at-bats,” Turner said.
When teammate Marlon Byrd convinced him to make some swing changes, Turner hit a couple home runs the final month of the season in 2013 and some fly balls deep to center field.
“I’m like, ‘oh, man, what just happened? I need to dig into this some more,'” he said.
Welcome, fly balls. More of them.
“JT preaches it all the time,” Taylor said after Game 1. “That’s the huge adjustment he made. Obviously the success he’s had since he left the Mets, coming over, and that’s his whole approach.”
Taylor is hitting .286/.419/.657 in nine postseason games with three home runs and 10 runs scored. Turner is hitting .371/.476/.714 with four home runs and 14 RBIs and is perhaps in the midst of a historic postseason run. They’ve been so tough at the top of the lineup in leading the Dodgers to an 8-1 postseason record so far that even with regular No. 2 Corey Seager back on the roster, Dave Roberts kept them there and moved Seager down to sixth.
“I think that there’s just a DNA piece to those two guys that they had opportunities,” Roberts said. “They created opportunities for themselves, and they expect a lot from themselves. They prepare the right way. They believe in their abilities. And so now, yeah, you see their two stories, and you look back a few years, and seeing that they’re hitting 1,2 in the World Series, it’s a credit to them.”
Turner’s career arc and postseason excellence have made him a fan favorite at Dodger Stadium. The fans started chanting “M-V-P! M-V-P!” during his final at-bat. He had a great quote to maybe explain why he’s excelled so much this postseason.
“Sandy told me — Koufax — told me today, 162 is work. Once you get to the playoffs, it’s fun. And I thought that was a pretty cool way to look at it,” he said.
After the game, Turner said he would simply drive home, where a very happy puppy would be waiting for him. For one game, he’s a World Series hero. And a long way from New York.
“I don’t think anyone grows up dreaming to be a utility guy in the big leagues,” he said. “But I certainly wasn’t angry that I was a utility guy.”
Keep dreaming and you never know what can happen.