Haunting memories of last year are driving Max Muncy this postseason

Throughout October of last year, Max Muncy’s brain was working in typically meticulous fashion.

He would watch bats and think about how he would attack the pitcher. He would see a leverage situation and imagine how he would change his approach. He would be sitting in the Dodgers’ dugout longing for the chance to go to the plate.

But then Muncy would look down at the huge metal brace holding his shredded elbow in place, think of the disastrous injury that ended his year on the final day of the regular season, and reluctantly come to terms with his inactive role on the bench.

“It didn’t matter,” he said. “I was not there.”

A year later and with his elbow and once struggling swing finally returning to normal, the memories that once haunted Muncy now fuel him.

Max Muncy hits a double home run against Arizona Diamondbacks reserve Drey Jameson on September 20 at Dodger Stadium.

Max Muncy hits a double home run against Arizona Diamondbacks reserve Drey Jameson on September 20 at Dodger Stadium.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

He finished this regular season on a high note, batting a .247 with 12 homers and 37 RBIs over the past two months.

He secured a contract extension with the Dodgers in August that removed the uncertainty of his once-threatening free agency.

Most importantly, he sees an opportunity to make up for lost playing time in October, hoping his return this postseason will help numb last season’s sting once and for all.

“Last year was tough, it sucked,” Muncy said this weekend ahead of the Dodgers’ playoff opener in Game 1 of Tuesday’s National League Division Series against the San Diego Padres. “One of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with in my career.”

When he was injured last year, Muncy was just finishing an all-star season with 36 homers, 94 RBIs and making the MVP talk.

On a World Series-focused Dodgers team, he was one of the lineup’s main offensive threats, his thundering left-handed swing being key in a club looking to defend its 2020 championship.

But in Game 162, catcher Will Smith made a long throw to first, Muncy stuck his left arm in the path of Milwaukee Brewers baserunner Jace Peterson, and the resulting collision left the Dodger with a torn ulnar collateral ligament, dislocated elbow and other damage ended his Season.

Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy writhes in pain while lying on the ground holding his elbow

Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy is writhing in pain after colliding with Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Jace Peterson in the final game of the 2021 regular season.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Over the next few weeks, he did what he could to help the Dodgers behind the scenes.

He was still hanging around the team during the NLCS elimination against the Atlanta Braves. He shared his thoughts with teammates and coaches throughout the game. He even backed the team’s public smokescreen over his status, telling reporters he was hoping for an October return despite already knowing his season was over.

“We made it look like there was a chance I would come back,” he recalled with a sheepish smile. “They were just such opposite teams, scouts had to waste their time with me.”

Then he sighed.

“It sucked,” he said. “After every game I went home and talked to my wife. Every evening a big kick in the pit of the stomach not being able to help the team. Just very frustrating.”

The physical and mental effects of the injury continued through this season.

“It was really huge for me to find that success, to find the results and to understand that I can still be that guy.”

– Max Muncy on his late-season upswing

Although Muncy was healthy in time for Opening Day, his elbow (which he had rehabilitated over the winter without surgery) didn’t feel right. He immediately went into a slump, struggling to find consistency in his swing or his power on the plate. He hit just .161 in late July and had just nine home runs in 83 games.

At times, he questioned his baseball mortality, unsure “if I could be the same player that I was.

“When you have that type of injury there will always be an issue.”

But then he found some answers.

Muncy added a backstep to his mechanic in early August, planting his back leg on each pitch then propelling his body into the rest of his swing.

His ailing elbow, which required time on the injury list in June, eventually healed and led to a postseason surge over the past two months that included a top-25 OPS in the majors. His totals were almost back to the league average. He finished with a .196 batting average, a .713 OPS and 21 home runs.

Dodgers Max Muncy taps his helmet as he celebrates hitting a double while Diamondbacks shortstop Geraldo Perdomo walks away

Max Muncy celebrates after starting a rally with a double against the Arizona Diamondbacks September 19 at Dodger Stadium.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

Muncy and the Dodgers also agreed to a one-year, $13.5 million contract extension with a $10 million option for 2024, boosting his renewed confidence on the plate.

“It’s one thing to say how much we believe in him,” Andrew Friedman, president of Baseball Operations, said at the time. “It’s another to come up with something that shows it.”

Muncy hopes to repay that trust in the coming weeks.

He will once again be a key factor in the middle of the Dodgers lineup, providing pop behind their leading trio of Superstars.

“He’s kind of right in the thick of it,” said manager Dave Roberts. “If he hits or gets to base or takes hits, that makes the bottom of the order and the top of the order all the better.”

He’ll look to translate his promising end to the regular season into another strong performance in October, with nine home runs and .881 OPS in 39 career playoff games.

“It was really huge for me,” he said of his late-season performance. “Just finding that success, finding the results, understanding that I can still be that guy.”

And when asked if his painful experience a year ago increased his anticipation for this year’s World Series round, his bearded face cracked into a grin.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I am very excited about it. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/story/2022-10-10/max-muncy-feature Haunting memories of last year are driving Max Muncy this postseason

Emma Bowman

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