The one pitch that will make (or break) October

  • Covers MLB for ESPN.com
  • Former deputy editor of Page 2
  • Been with ESPN.com since 1995

It was an impossible home run, saving a game and perhaps a season.

A noticeable percentage of the Dodger Stadium crowd had already departed to their cars in the vast parking lot at Chavez Ravine as Cody Bellinger came to the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 3 of the NLCS. Trailing 5-2 after losing the first two games, the Dodgers needed something shocking to happen.

With two runners on, Braves right-hander Luke Jackson ran the count to 1-2. During the regular season with two strikes on the batter, Jackson threw his slider 63.7% of the time and his four-seam fastball 31.2%. Bellinger, however, had struggled all season against fastballs, hitting .177 against four-seamers and .119 against four-seamers in the upper third of the strike zone. It was the most well-known gospel in the sport: Bellinger, the 2019 National League MVP, can no longer hit velocity.

So Jackson threw a 95.6 mph four-seam fastball up in the strike zone — and Bellinger crushed it 399 feet to right-center field for a game-tying three-run homer.

It wasn’t a bad pitch from Jackson — it wasn’t even in the strike zone, a pitch Bellinger — and many other batters — often flail helplessly at. After the Dodgers went on to win the game, Jackson said he would throw the same pitch again.

“Yeah, it’s not a hitter’s pitch right there,” Bellinger said after the game, “but in the moment, whatever happened, I saw it, and I just tried to put the barrel on it and continue to pass the baton.”

The pitch was 4.12 feet above home plate — not just the first home run Bellinger has hit all season on a pitch out of the strike zone, but the first postseason home run since at least 2008 hit on a 95 mph-plus fastball that was at least four feet above the plate. Somehow, it was possible.

The fastball has always been at the heart of the game. “Everybody likes fastballs, just like everybody likes ice cream,” Reggie Jackson once said. “But you don’t like fastballs when someone’s stuffing it into you by the gallon.” Back in the early days of baseball, the mound was moved back from 50 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches in 1893 in large part because Amos Rusie and Cy Young threw harder than anybody had seen before.

If Rusie and Young created the first fastball revolution, we’ve been in the midst of another one for the past half-decade or so: more velocity, more spin, more swings and misses, more unhittable high-octane heaters at the top of the strike zone.

As you watch the rest of the 2021 postseason, the ultimate winner may come down to who creates the most damage against those high fastballs — or which pitchers can blow hitters away with them.

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