Max Muncy believed he was in a much better place on Thursday.
During the sixth inning, Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa challenged him to prove it.
In a stunning, unexpected, and inexplicable decision-making process, La Russa chose not only to purposely lead Dodger’s shortstop Trea Turner with Muncy on deck, but to do it on a 1-and-2 count after a wild pitch opened first base .
In a cathartic, emotional, and perhaps season-changing sequence that ensued, Muncy didn’t just make La Russa pay by smashing a three-run home run that gave him five RBIs in the Dodgers’ 11-9 win. The fiery infielder may have rediscovered a part of his old self in the process.
“I’m glad they made it,” said teammate Freddie Freeman with a grin. “Because I think it brought Max Muncy back to us.”
Old Muncy had been nowhere to be found for the first two months of the season.
A hitter with three 35-homer seasons over the past four years had hit just three in his first 41 games of 2022. A two-time All-Star known for his ability to get to base hits against one of the major league’s worst .150s.
Most notably, the stiff competition that had characterized the 31-year-old’s mid-career revival seemed to have been overshadowed by hesitation and doubt.
He not only had problems with his left elbow, where he tore a ligament at the end of last season.
The exasperating wear and tear of his worst stretch as a Dodger also seemed to wear him out mentally.
“There were some physical things he had to deal with,” said manager Dave Roberts, “which then got a bit mental.”
When Muncy experienced a flare-up in his elbow last month, the Dodgers saw it as an opportunity to give him a fresh start. They put him on the injured list. They sent him to minor league rehabilitation. And they waited to bring him back until he felt productive again.
Returning to the clubhouse on Thursday, he said he felt everything had improved, from his physical health to his refreshed mental space.
“I’m ready to be here,” he said. “I’m willing to do my part.”
Then he put on a classic performance that set in motion the Dodgers’ rubber match win.
After slamming in his first two at-bats, Muncy came up at a crucial point in the fifth.
The Dodgers, 4-0 after Tyler Anderson’s bumpy three-inning start, had come back to one with a double from Freddie Freeman (who had three hits and three RBIs) and a run-scoring infield single from Turner.
Although White Sox right-hander Dylan Cease had thrown 100 pitches, nearly 40 of them in the fifth inning, La Russa left him to face Muncy with two ons and two outs.
The result: a two-run double muncy in left midfield that put the Dodgers (37-20) ahead for the first time.
It wouldn’t be La Russa’s last controversial decision.
With the Dodgers leading 7-5 in sixth place, Turner first came on the plate with Freeman. Turner fell behind against left-hander Bennett Sousa with 0 and 2, but then Sousa threw a wild throw that allowed Freeman to move into second place.
Turner was preparing to step back into the pits when, to the surprise of almost everyone but the Hall of Fame executive himself, La Russa held up his arm and raised four fingers in the air.
Freeman, who was second, looked around in confusion. Turner was so stunned that he later joked, “I didn’t know whether to go first or not.”
La Russa vehemently defended the decision after the game, saying that even with Turner in a two-strike count, he believed a left-left matchup against Muncy was the better play.
“Any question as to whether that was a good move or not?” La Russa asked reporters rhetorically. He added: “That wasn’t a tough call.”
However, nobody reacted like Muncy. He felt offended when he got to the plate. He felt motivated, he said of La Russa, “to make him pay”. And when Sousa tried to sneak a 2-and-2 slider over the outside edge, Muncy lined it the other way into the left stands.
After crossing the plate, Muncy yelled passionately, glanced back at the White Sox dugout and slapped his teammates on the hands as he returned to the dugout.
It was his first game this season with two extra base hits. It was his first five-RBI performance since last August. And it was the first time in the whole year – from the swing to the party – that Muncy looked like his old self again.
“It gave me something that I haven’t had much of this year,” Muncy said. “In the past, I’ve always been a guy who was very fiery and edgy. I haven’t had much of it this year. So getting that back felt really good.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/story/2022-06-09/dodgers-white-sox-max-muncy-trea-turner-tony-larussa Max Muncy’s return leads Dodgers to wild win over White Sox