Max Muncy hits key homer to lead Dodgers

LOS ANGELES — Through Max Muncy’s season-long struggles at the plate, the Dodgers’ confidence in him has not wavered. Manager Dave Roberts has moved Muncy down in the order at times but has trotted him out there every day, repeatedly saying their best lineup is when the two-time All-Star is on top of his game.

Maybe that patience is finally starting to pay off.

Muncy played the role of hero on Saturday night, delivering the go-ahead three-run homer off Mike Clevinger in the fifth inning to lead the Dodgers to an 8-3 win over the Padres at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers, who extended their NL West division lead to 14 1/2 games, will go for the sweep against the Padres on Sunday.

“He’s been on the come the last 10 days,” Roberts said. “Certainly the results [have been there], and it was a big at-bat, a big hit for us. That continues to build the confidence. Like all players, you still need to see results.”

As Clevinger hung a slider that sat in the middle of the strike zone, Muncy geared back and put together one of his best swings of the season. In years past, Muncy might have taken a second to admire a ball with an exit velocity of 106 mph. The way things are going this season, however, Muncy decided to sprint out of the box.

But as Muncy saw the ball land inside the Padres’ bullpen for his 11th homer of 2022 and his 16th in 72 career games against San Diego, the third baseman exhaled and lifted his right arm up in celebration. The sold-out crowd at Dodger Stadium erupted. It was a moment that has become unfamiliar for Muncy this season.

“It’s definitely a little relief,” said Muncy, whose batting average sits at .170. “This is a really hard game not to focus on results. But when you’re at a spot where I’m at, you kind of need to see a couple results here and there. To have one or two recently, it’s definitely been a huge relief for me, and, hopefully, we can keep it going.”

In their seventh straight win — and their seventh in nine games against San Diego this season — The Dodgers also got key contributions from Will Smith, who opened the scoring with a solo homer in the second inning, and Mookie Betts, who had a three-hit night. Left-hander Andrew Heaney also pitched well, allowing three runs (none earned) over 4 2/3 innings.

But the night belonged to Muncy. After rehabbing a torn UCL during the offseason, Muncy has had a nightmare season at the plate. In May, Muncy and the Dodgers admitted that they might have rushed his return a little out of Spring Training. But a short stint on the injured list in June did not come with an immediate solution.

Across the board, Muncy’s numbers this season are his worst since he joined the Dodgers in 2018. Over the last few weeks, however, the third baseman has started to look a little bit like himself, making solid contact and driving the ball to the pull side.

“It’s what got him on the map as far as at-bat quality, being able to drive in a run, hit to all fields, take the walk when you need to,” Roberts said. “I think right now he’s not chasing numbers, he’s trying to help us win ballgames. … Guys are really having to work to get him out these days.”

In his last eight games, Muncy is 8-for-29 with two homers and six RBIs. With a 1-for-4 night on Saturday, Muncy has recorded at least one hit in each of his last four games. It’s the first four-game hitting streak of the season for Muncy. That’s hard to believe considering Muncy finished in the top 10 in NL MVP voting last season.

Muncy’s struggles haven’t hurt the Dodgers. With the win, they improved to 74-33, the best mark in the Majors. The offense leads the NL with 567 runs scored. But if Muncy can be consistent in the box, the Dodgers will be that much more potent heading into the final two months of the regular season and into a deep postseason run.

“We’re a really deep lineup. We’re a really, really good lineup,” Muncy said. “It kind of seems like our lineup has been forgotten about with a lot of this stuff that has been happening. It’s been kind of nice to go out there and prove again that we’re one of the best lineups in baseball, and there’s no question about that.”

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