Joc Pederson’s jaunt around the bases was straightforward and simple, a steady jog resulting from his opposite-field home run in Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday night.
Pederson’s journey up to that point — a second-inning solo shot in the Dodgers’ 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays — was anything but. Instead, the 2020 season has put the Dodgers’ outfielder through more twists and turns, more stops and starts, than any before it in his seven-year career.
“Definitely,” he said, “it’s been a little bit of a roller coaster.”
The first detour came in February, when the Dodgers were on the verge of trading Pederson to the Angels only to have the deal called off by Angels owner Arte Moreno at the last minute.
The next occurred during spring training, when a side injury derailed Pederson’s preseason right as a pandemic pushed back the season.
And once the games finally did commence, the 28-year-old struggled in his contract year, recording career lows in batting average (.190) and slugging percentage (.397) while hitting only seven home runs in 121 at-bats.
“You kind of gotta adapt,” Pederson said. “That’s baseball. I’m making the best of what I got.”
Pederson balanced changes away from the field too. He had a family to take care of during quarantine. His wife spent the summer pregnant with their second child. The boy was born in early September, with Pederson going on the paternity list Sept. 8.
But barely a week later, the team put Pederson on the family emergency medical list for undisclosed reasons. Leading up to the playoffs, manager Dave Roberts wasn’t sure if the outfielder would be able to travel in the postseason.
“I can’t say with 100% certainty,” Roberts said on Sept. 22. “Family first and Joc knows that, and his family understands that. I just know that Joc worked real hard to be here with us ... I would expect him to be with us through the wild-card series, but after that, I just don’t know.”
There is no doubt now. Pederson has been with the team every step of the way on their latest championship pursuit. On Sunday, he nudged the Dodgers closer to the finish line by producing what proved to be the decisive run in the Dodgers’ Game 5 win.
“They don’t call it ‘Joctober’ for no reason,” Max Muncy said postgame. “That guy performs on the big stage. It’s just what he does.”
After striking out in both his meetings with Rays starter Tyler Glasnow in Game 1, Pederson whiffed on his first pitch against the right-hander on Sunday, too, missing a fastball to go behind in the count.
But after a couple of curveballs made the count 1 and 2, Glasnow went back to his four-seamer again, throwing a 98.5-mph heater up in the zone. This time, Pederson connected. As the ball sailed into the Rays’ left-center-field bullpen, he walked slowly up the first-base line, admiring it all the way.
“He throws the ball really hard,” Pederson said. “I was just looking honestly to put a ball in play. He got me Game 1, so it was nice to be able to return the favor.”
It was the fifth home run of Pederson’s Fall Classic career and gave him the fourth-best World Series slugging percentage in the wild-card era (minimum 50 plate appearances) behind only George Springer, David Ortiz and Hideki Matsui. After flying out later in the night (he also drew a walk before being removed in a defensive substitution in the eighth) his batting average this postseason remains a blistering .382.
“If you look at Joc’s postseason track record, he always performs,” said Roberts, who has deployed Pederson in an effective platoon role this month. “He’s just laser-focused.”
That hasn't changed, even as his path to these playoffs have been lined with obstacles.
As Pederson returned to the dugout after his blast, he slapped hands with Mookie Betts and did a handshake with Justin Turner. Before he excitedly descended the steps, he shouted well within range of a nearby TV camera, pointed words for all the broadcast to hear.
“They don’t want the smoke!” he exclaimed before cooling himself down with a long drink of water.
One win away from completing the journey with a championship ring, Pederson has proven he can handle the heat.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.