Max Muncy is haunted by last year’s postseason.
All of October last year, Max Muncy’s mind worked in a typical meticulous way.
He would watch at-bats and think about how he would attack the pitcher. He would see a leverage situation and imagine how he would alter his approach. He would sit in the Dodgers dugout and long for the chance to walk to the plate.
But then, Muncy would look down at the giant metal brace keeping his tattered elbow in place, think about the catastrophic injury that had ended his year on the last day of the regular season and reluctantly resign himself to his inactive role on the bench.
“It didn’t matter,” he said. “I wasn’t part of it.”
A year later, and with his elbow and his once-struggling swing finally back to normal, the memories that once haunted Muncy are now driving him.
He finished this regular season on a high note, batting .247 with 12 home runs and 37 RBIs over the final two months.
He reached a contract extension with the Dodgers in August that removed the uncertainty of his once-looming free agency.
Most of all, he senses the chance to make up for lost October playing time, hoping his return this postseason will help numb the sting of last season once and for all.
“Last year was tough, it sucked,” Muncy said this weekend, ahead of the Dodgers’ playoff opener in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Tuesday against the San Diego Padres. “One of the toughest things I had to deal with in my career.”
When he was hurt last year, Muncy was finishing off an All-Star-caliber season that included 36 home runs, 94 RBIs and inclusion into the MVP conversation.
On a World Series-minded Dodgers team, he was one of the lineup’s most important offensive threats, his thunderous left-handed swing key to a club trying to defend its 2020 championship.
But in Game 162, catcher Will Smith made a wide throw to first, Muncy stuck his left arm into the path of Milwaukee Brewers baserunner Jace Peterson and the resulting collision left the Dodger with a torn ulnar collateral ligament, a dislocated elbow and other damage that ended his season.
For the next several weeks, he did what he could to help the Dodgers behind the scenes.
He still hung around the team through its elimination against the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS. He shared his mid-game thoughts with teammates and coaches. He even aided the team’s public smoke screen regarding his status, telling reporters he was holding out hope of an October return despite already knowing his season was over.
“We were making it seem like there was a chance I was coming back,” he recalled with a sheepish smile. “That was just so opposing teams, scouts had to waste their time on me.”
Then, he sighed.
“It sucked,” he said. “After each game I went home and talked to my wife. A big kick in the gut every single night, not being able to help the team. Just very frustrating.”
The physical and mental impact of the injury lingered into this season, too.
“It was really huge for me, just finding that success, finding the results, understanding that I can still be that guy.”
— Max Muncy on his late-season surge
Though Muncy was healthy in time for opening day, his elbow (which he rehabbed over the winter without surgery) didn’t feel right. Immediately, he went into a slump, struggling to find consistency in his swing or power at the plate. He was batting just .161 at the end of 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 kind of injury, it’s always gonna be a question.”
But then, he found some answers.
Muncy added a backstep to his mechanics in early August, planting his back leg on every pitch to then drive his body into the rest of his swing.
His ailing elbow, which required time on the injured list in June, finally healed leading to a late-season surge over the final two months that included a top-25 OPS in the majors. His overall numbers were almost back to league average. He finished with a .196 batting average, a .713 OPS and 21 home runs.
Muncy and the Dodgers also agreed on a one-year contract extension worth $13.5 million with a $10-million option for 2024, which reinforced his rebounding confidence at the plate.
“It’s one thing to say how much we believe in him,” said Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations, at the time. “It’s another to be able to come up with something that shows it.”
Muncy hopes to repay that faith in the coming weeks.
He will once again be a key factor in the middle of the Dodgers’ lineup, providing pop behind their leadoff trio of superstars.
“He’s kind of right there in the middle of things,” manager Dave Roberts said. “If he’s slugging or getting on base or getting hits, that just makes the bottom part of the order and the top part of the order that much better.”
He will try to translate his auspicious regular-season finish into another strong October display, having nine home runs and a .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 whether his painful experience a year ago has added to his anticipation for this year’s run at the World Series, his bearded face curled into a grin.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to this. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.”