For most of this season, Mookie Betts has not played like one of the best players in the game (as he has been for most of his big-league career), the difference-maker he was for the Dodgers last year.
But Thursday was a reminder of what he is capable of doing.
Betts led off the game with a home run then added a Gold Glove-level defensive play reminiscent of his NLCS Game 5 gem in October. Both were needed as the Dodgers edged the Pittsburgh Pirates, 6-3, in a game shortened by rain.
The Dodgers didn’t complete the game but they did complete a three-game sweep at PNC Park and extended their winning streak against the Pirates to 13 games.
“I know it’s trite but it’s a long season and all it takes is a little hot streak and all the numbers are corrected and where his normal line is,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who predicted over the weekend a power surge from Betts was coming. “He goes out there and like a lot of our players every night he does something to help us win, whether it’s take a walk, score a run, make a play defensively and assist or like today a homer. He still makes us a lot better when he’s in the lineup, makes me look like a good manager.”
Betts’ leadoff home run off Pirates starter Mitch Keller was his first homer since May 18 (also in his first at-bat), ending a stretch of 75 plate appearances without a homer. He also walked, singled and scored another run in the game and has gone 11 for 37 (.297) over his past nine games with three doubles, a triple and, now, a homer.
“I see him looking healthier,” Roberts said of Betts, who dealt with back and shoulder injuries in the first two months of this season. “But I think for me more of it is in the batter’s box, I just think he’s way more aggressive as opposed to being passive – which, in my opinion, I feel that the last month he’s been more passive than he needs to be.”
Betts said he has “been working a lot, as always” but the difference is more about his approach at the plate than any swing mechanics.
“I’ve been hitting the ball harder, more consistent – and hard more consistently,” Betts said.
“It’s just a mindset of being on the attack a little more instead of trying to be passive. … Trying to get more swings off, not necessarily swinging wildly but definitely trying to get some more swings off.”
The Pirates matched that run in the second inning and were threatening to take a lead for the first time in the series after Phillip Evans’ leadoff single and Erik Gonzalez’s RBI double. A wild pitch moved Gonzalez to third when Ka’ai Tom lofted a fly ball to shallow right field.
Betts came charging in and to his left, snatching the ball shin-high as he ran, then pivoting and spinning 360 degrees before uncorking a throw home. Gonzalez had tagged at third but he was out at home for a double play when catcher Austin Barnes picked Betts’ one-hop throw and made the tag.
“I just saw it and I just tried to do everything I could to stay on my feet,” Betts said. “I knew once I got to a point, I could catch it. I tried to kind of get myself ready to throw. I felt that the spin was going to be the easiest way to keep my momentum so I can get something on the ball instead of trying to stop and redirect to throw it home.”
The play was similar to a momentum-shifting play Betts made against the Atlanta Braves in Game 5 of the NLCS last October, helping the Dodgers begin to dig out of a 3-games-to-1 hole in that series.
If the stakes were less, Roberts said this play was more difficult.
“I think that if you’re talking about the degree of difficulty on the catch, the turn and the accuracy and the arm strength – it’s just really hard to find a play that would be tougher. Really,” Roberts said. “I mean, going to his left, to spin, throw the ball on a dime with velocity was incredible.
“He made that play in the postseason last year coming straight in, which is a really nice play. But this one for me was even better.”
The Dodgers took the lead for good in the top of the third, scoring three times and chasing Keller, who hit two batters on the way to loading the bases.
Zach McKinstry drove in the go-ahead run with a sacrifice fly, but Julio Urias had the inning’s key hit. He ended Keller’s day by sending a 2-and-2 curveball into right field to drive in two runs.
The single gives Urias seven RBIs this season – the most among major-league pitchers in what is likely the last season they are required to hit.
“When I have two strikes, I try to go up there and shorten my swing, try to make contact. I was looking for something soft and I got that pitch and I was able to get a hit,” Urias said through an interpreter.
“I just try to go up there and do what I can. I’ve said it before – I like to hit. I like to go up there and take some swings. I try to do my job, whatever is asked of me, whatever I can do to help the team.”
Urias gave up a two-run home run to Bryan Reynolds in the bottom of the inning, making it a 4-3 game. But he got through six innings, retiring 10 of the final 11.
The Dodgers gave their bullpen a little margin for error with an RBI single from McKinstry in the seventh and Justin Turner’s RBI single in the eighth before the day’s intermittent rains intensified. The game was called after an hour’s delay with one out in the eighth inning.