Behind a stellar performance from Clayton Kershaw and Justin Turner’s go-ahead homer, the Dodgers beat the Astros 3-1 in Game 1.
USA TODAY Sports
LOS ANGELES – Justin Turner was in the process of remaking his swing at a Southern California hitting facility in December 2013 when word got out that the New York Mets had released him. The other hitters taking swings that day, a combination of pros and amateurs, were dumbstruck.
Here was a player coming off a season when he batted .280 and played all four infield positions, and he was deemed expendable. It was stunning to those in attendance.
“His attitude was, ‘OK, let’s go to work. What are we working on today?’’’ said Doug Latta, the hitting coach behind Turner’s transformation from a utilityman to an All-Star and postseason hero.
Turner had become a believer in Latta’s teachings – which incorporate creating a consistent swing path that produces more plate coverage and loft – after Mets teammate Marlon Byrd shared the concepts and urged him to try them during the 2013 season. In the final month, Turner batted .357 with two homers and was sold.
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Two months after his release, Turner landed a job with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have reaped the rewards in the last four seasons as he became their starting third baseman and one of the driving forces behind the team’s pursuit of its first championship since 1988.
In the Dodgers’ 3-1 triumph over the Houston Astros in Tuesday’s Game 1 of the World Series, Turner delivered a home run to put Los Angeles ahead on the way to a win for the third time this October.
With the Astros’ Dallas Keuchel locked in a 1-1 duel with Clayton Kershaw and two outs in the sixth, Turner launched a two-run homer to left that accounted for the winning margin.
That it would be Turner providing the offensive heroics – while Kershaw tossed seven innings of three-hit ball and struck out 11 – has become almost expected around these parts. Manager Dave Roberts even put him in the company of former teammate and postseason legend David Ortiz for his ability to produce when the stakes are highest.
“It’s amazing in a big moment to really be able to come through, and JT has that DNA and that makeup,’’ Roberts said. “If he gets opportunities I’m sure that he’s going to rise to that moment again. And it puts the onus on the other pitcher, if they want to take a chance with JT or (Cody) Bellinger behind him.’’
Nine days before the World Series opener, Turner had authored one of the most memorable moments in recent Dodgers history when his three-run homer gave L.A. a 4-1 walkoff victory over the Chicago Cubs in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, ushering in the dethroning of the reigning champs.
In the opener of the division series, Turner cracked yet another three-run homer as the Dodgers took a 4-0 lead in the first inning and went on to sweep the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Turner said having played in the Connie Mack World Series as a youth and in three College World Series while at Cal State Fullerton contributed to his ability to steady his pulse in tense moments.
“Obviously this is a lot bigger stage and a larger microscope,’’ said Turner, 32, “but to be in those environments, you know, where it’s loud and it’s crazy, I mean, I can’t say that that’s why I’m having success, but it definitely helps and the experience definitely helps.’’
So does the work he did in Latta’s batting cages, changing his hitting approach from merely trying to make solid contact to elevating the ball and maintain a consistent swing through the grueling major league season. Turner spent about 3 1/2 months working five days a week at Latta’s facility – about 25 miles northwest of Dodger Stadium – and came out a different player
After batting .267 with eight homers in his three full seasons with the Mets, he turned into one of the Dodgers’ most reliable run producers, batting .303 with an average of 18 homers and an .881 on-base plus slugging percentage in his four years in Los Angeles.
“When Justin left, Marlon and I were talking and I looked at Marlon and said, ‘Does he realize what an impact player he can be?’’’ Latta said. “Because I’ve been blessed to see a lot of hitters with great skill sets, and I’ve always felt one of the skills that’s a great attribute for a high-end hitter is his hands. Justin has great hands.’’
Turner’s 14 RBI this postseason are a franchise record, and his 26 over the last four Octobers tied Duke Snider for the career postseason mark. Going back to Oct. 9, 2015, Turner has reached base in 24 of his last 25 games in the postseason, batting .371 in this one.
Having known anonymity for a good portion of his career, Turner makes a point of appreciating the team’s past as he walks through the Dodger Stadium corridor that contains a collection of trophies, photos, plaques, jerseys and magazine covers that illustrate the franchise’s history.
“It’s something that I feel extremely proud to be able to put on the same uniform as those guys that have their name on the wall,’’ Turner said, “and it’s something that I don’t just walk by every day with my blinders up. I try to soak it in every chance I can.’’
He’s now one of them.
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