Mookie Betts saved the day.
But the Dodgers bullpen made it a lot harder than it needed to be.
After his team led by five runs early, then blew it by giving up a combined six in the seventh and eighth innings, Betts came to the plate with the score tied in the bottom of the eighth. There were two runners on and two outs.
It was the night’s critical moment and the former MVP delivered.
Betts hit a three-run home run to left field, putting the Dodgers back in front in a 9-6 win over the San Francisco Giants. The moment the ball left his bat, an MLB season-high crowd of 53,165 at Dodger Stadium jumped to its feet. Long before the no-doubter landed in the left-field pavilion, they all knew it was gone.
A few moments earlier, though, they all thought the game was over.
After an early barrage from the Dodgers lineup — including a solo home run from Freddie Freeman in the first, an RBI double from Trayce Thompson in the second and a three-run rally aided by a missed fly ball by Giants outfielder Luis González in the third — the Dodgers lead 5-0.
Their starting pitcher, Mitch White, pitched five-plus scoreless innings in which he didn’t give up his first hit until the first batter in the sixth when he was pulled.
But the bullpen — a group that has sustained injury after injury, and tenuously navigated the season with unproven middle relievers and a unreliable veteran closer — couldn’t hold the lead.
In the top of the seventh, right-handed reliever Phil Bickford gave up a solo home run to Evan Longoria, then yielded a walk and a single before recording an out. He was replaced by left-hander Alex Vesia, who hit a batter to load the bases, then piped a two-out, two-strike fastball down the middle of the plate.
Darin Ruf smacked it over the wall in left field and the grand slam tied the score.
At the start of the eighth inning, Evan Phillips entered the game.
In lieu of injuries to Blake Trienen, Tommy Kahnle, Brusdar Graterol and Daniel Hudson, Phillips has become the Dodgers’ most trusted middle reliever, entering Thursday with a 1.50 ERA and 11 consecutive scoreless appearances.
On Thursday night, however, it was immediately clear the right-hander wasn’t at his best.
Phillips walked leadoff hitter Wilmer Flored on five pitches. Joc Pederson came up next and slapped a double the other way down the left-field line.
With one out, manager Dave Roberts called for an intentional walk of the left-handed González that loaded the bases but set up a right-on-right matchup against Thairo Estrada.
It didn’t work. Phillips walked the go-ahead run home.
The Giants’ 6-5 lead didn’t last long.
In the bottom of the eighth, Gavin Lux doubled with one out, then Thompson drove him home with a two-out triple off the wall in center.
Cody Bellinger followed with a walk to put runners on the corners.
Then Betts came up and hit a center-cut changeup way out of the ballpark, ensuring the Dodgers started the second half of the season with a win — no matter how ugly it seemed.
Starters nearing return
Roberts had encouraging news about several injured starting pitchers Thursday.
Andrew Heaney made a rehabilitation start Thursday, putting him on track to return from a shoulder injury as soon as next week.
Dustin May is scheduled for his own rehab outing Friday, his first at a full-season minor-league affiliate since undergoing Tommy John surgery last year, putting him on pace for a mid-August season debut.
And Walker Buehler, expected back from a flexor tendon strain in his elbow sometime in September, is still not throwing yet almost six weeks removed from his injury but “trending in the right direction,” according to his manager.
In the bullpen, Brusdar Graterol is now pain-free after going on the injured list before the All-Star break with shoulder inflammation but is still at least a week away from returning after not throwing during the break.
“We’re trying to be cautious obviously with him, but I don’t see it being too long-term,” Roberts said. “It’s not going to be [immediately when] he’s eligible to come off [the injured list next Tuesday]. I’d be shocked if that’s the case. But it shouldn’t be much longer.”
Blake Treinen is still throwing bullpen sessions as he rehabs a shoulder issue, but there is no specific timetable for his return yet.
Of the position players, Chris Taylor is still dealing with a foot fracture.
He has started swinging, taking grounders and throwing but has not begun running yet.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.