Max Muncy believed he was in a much better place Thursday.
During the sixth inning, Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa dared him to prove it.
In a stunning, unexpected and inexplicable piece of decision-making, La Russa decided to not only intentionally walk Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner with Muncy on deck, but do it in a 1-and-2 count after a wild pitch opened up first base.
In a cathartic, emotional and perhaps season-altering sequence that followed, Muncy not only made La Russa pay by crushing a three-run home run, giving him five RBIs in the Dodgers’ 11-9 win. The fiery infielder might also have rediscovered part of his old self in the process.
“I’m glad they did it,” teammate Freddie Freeman said with a smirk. “Because I think it got us Max Muncy back.”
During the first two months of the season, the old Muncy had been nowhere to be found.
A slugger with three 35-homer seasons in the last four years had hit only three in his first 41 games of 2022. A two-time All-Star known for his ability to get on base was batting a major-league worst .150.
Most of all, the fierce competitiveness that had defined the 31-year-old’s midcareer revival had seemed to be blanketed by hesitancy and doubt.
He wasn’t just battling issues with his left elbow, in which he had suffered a torn ligament at the end of last season.
The exasperating grind of his worst stretch as a Dodger also appeared to mentally be wearing him out.
“There were some things physically that he had to deal with,” manager Dave Roberts said, “which then got to be a little bit mental.”
So, when Muncy experienced a flare-up in his elbow last month, the Dodgers saw it as a chance to give him a fresh start. They put him on the injured list. They sent him out for a minor-league rehabilitation stint. And they waited to bring him back until he felt he was in a place to be productive again.
When he returned to the clubhouse Thursday, he said he felt like everything had improved, from his physical health to his refreshed mental space.
“I’m ready to be here,” he said. “I’m ready to do my part.”
Then, he proceeded to have a vintage performance that keyed the Dodgers’ rubber-match win.
After striking out in his first two at-bats, Muncy came up at a crucial point in the fifth.
The Dodgers, once down 4-0 after Tyler Anderson’s bumpy three-inning start, had gotten back within one on a two-run double from Freddie Freeman (who had three hits and three RBIs) and run-scoring infield single from Turner.
Though White Sox right-hander Dylan Cease had thrown 100 pitches, including almost 40 in the fifth inning, La Russa left him in to face Muncy with two on and two out.
The result: a two-run double Muncy lined to left-center field, putting the Dodgers (37-20) in front for the first time.
It wouldn’t be La Russa’s last controversial decision.
With the Dodgers leading 7-5 in the sixth, Turner came to the plate with Freeman at first. Turner fell behind 0-and-2 against left-handed reliever Bennett Sousa, but then Sousa threw a wild pitch that allowed Freeman to advance to second.
Turner was preparing to step back in the box when, to the surprise of almost everyone except the Hall of Fame manager himself, La Russa stuck up his arm and put four fingers in the air.
Freeman, standing at second, looked around in confusion. Turner was so stunned, he later joked, “I didn’t know if I should go to first or not.”
La Russa vehemently defended the decision postgame, saying that, even with Turner in a two-strike count, he believed a lefty-lefty matchup against Muncy was the better play.
“Is there some question about whether that was a good move or not?” La Russa asked reporters rhetorically. He added: “That wasn’t a tough call.”
No one, however, reacted quite like Muncy. He felt slighted as he came to the plate. He felt motivated to, he said of La Russa, “make him pay.” And when Sousa tried to sneak a 2-and-2 slider over the outer edge, Muncy lined it the other way into the left-field stands.
After crossing the plate, Muncy shouted out passionately, briefly glanced back toward the White Sox dugout, and slapped the hands of his teammates 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 all year — from swing to celebration — Muncy looked like his old self again.
“It gave me something that I haven’t had a lot of this year,” Muncy said. “In the past, I’ve always been a guy that’s very fiery and has a lot of edge. I haven’t had a lot of that this year. So to get that back felt really good.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.