A year ago, James Outman was hardly on the Dodgers’ MLB radar, a solid but overlooked prospect who’d spent years reworking his stiff “caveman” swing.
A month ago, he wasn’t certain to make their opening-day roster, despite a breakout spring performance and an open spot on the team.
But with every opportunity he has received this season, the 25-year-old rookie has risen to the occasion.
And in the biggest moment of his young career Thursday — facing a bases-loaded, full-count, ninth-inning at-bat in a tied game between the Dodgers and Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field — Outman took another giant step forward, putting an explosive final touch on his most signature game yet.
Gifted a down-the-middle cutter, Outman delivered a no-doubt grand slam to give the Dodgers (10-10) a 6-2 win.
It was the exclamation point on a two-homer, five-RBI game for the left-handed slugger, who also added an outfield assist with a fourth-inning throw that got an out at home plate.
“I can’t say enough about him,” manager Dave Roberts said.
“He just keeps getting better, which is scary.”
Playing his first full month in the majors following a four-game debut last season, Outman has already created a highlight reel of impressive moments.
A home run on opening day. Two triples a week later.
Even some fill-in duty as the Dodgers’ leadoff hitter the last couple days, while Mookie Betts was away for the birth of his child.
“The moment,” Roberts said of Outman, “never gets too big for him.”
Three separate times Thursday, Outman proved that was the case.
His first home run was his longest, a 420-foot blast that broke a third-inning tie after Max Muncy and former Dodger Cody Bellinger traded solo blasts in the second.
His fourth-inning throw from right field (where he was also filling in for Betts) was his most athletic play, delivering a strike to nab the trailing runner on an RBI single that otherwise would have put the Cubs (11-7) in front.
Outman’s ninth-inning at-bat, however, was infinitely more memorable — a tailor-made spot for what he called “the biggest situation of my career so far.”
After fouling off one pitch deep down the right-field line, then laying off a changeup that went into the dirt, Outman got a payoff pitch over the heart of the plate.
The moment the ball rocketed off his bat — a drive to right field that rattled around the bleachers — Outman’s typically stoic on-field demeanor immediately began to fade.
“To be honest,” he said, “just the emotions took over.”
Outman jumped up and down as he rounded first base, pointing to a dugout going wild in celebration.
After speeding across the plate, he was mobbed on the bench, embracing a sea of hugs and high fives with a wide smile on his face.
“There’s a lot of energy that he has, that he knows how to channel,” Roberts said.
“But a big moment like that, he should let it out.”
Outman wasn’t the only hero on Thursday, producing his game-winning hit only after Betts saved the night defensively.
Betts started his day Thursday morning in Los Angeles, sleeping in a hospital room chair days after his wife, Brianna, gave birth to their second child.
It was supposed to be the last day of his three-game paternity leave, and when the Dodgers arrived at Wrigley Field, there was little indication Betts might actually play.
But a couple of hours before the game, Roberts said Betts was not only en route to Chicago, but could be activated if he could reach the ballpark in time.
“I was, like, three miles away for 40 minutes,” Betts joked. “Freddie [Freeman] called me and said, ‘As soon as you get here, hurry up and get dressed because you’re going to play.’”
After Betts arrived in the first inning, Roberts finally deployed him as a pinch-hitter for shortstop Luke Williams in the sixth inning.
And when the Dodgers took the field moments later, Betts produced his second surprise of the game, trotting out to shortstop for the first time in his major league career.
“That was like a dream come true,” said Betts, who was originally drafted as a shortstop but hadn’t played the position since the developmental Arizona Fall League in 2013.
And when the ball was hit to him in the middle of an eighth-inning jam, he calmly fielded it on the move, jumped over Bellinger at second base, and accurately fired to first base for a crucial double-play.
“I just give Mookie a lot of credit tonight,” Roberts said.
“Getting off a plane, having a baby, being willing to come into a ballgame and take an at-bat and then go out and play a position he’s never played before at the big league level … It was a big boost to us.”
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