Since New York’s baseball teams are resigned to another October of watching the World Series rather than participating, two thoughts immediately came to mind Tuesday night as Mookie Betts once again did what Mookie Betts does in the Dodgers’ 8-3 victory over the Rays in Game 1.
The first was how the Yankees keep looking more fortunate by the day that Betts was traded out of Boston last February, because of the shortsighted dysfunction of the payroll-flexibility-craving Red Sox.
The second was the potential near-miss by the Mets, who could have been a player for Betts this offseason — thanks to incoming mega-billionaire owner Steve Cohen — if only the Dodgers weren’t smart enough (and rich enough) to basically buy out the remainder of his career with a 12-year, $365 million contract extension in July.
It already was understood that Betts, a four-time All-Star and former MVP, is a franchise player on an early Cooperstown trajectory. But what Betts is doing this postseason really showcases his elite abilities on a granular level, and that continued Tuesday night when Betts swiped two bases to jump-start a four-run fifth inning and also homered to lead off the sixth.
With all that, and the eventual cushion comfy enough for manager Dave Roberts to lift a cruising Clayton Kershaw after just six innings (a mere 78 pitches), Betts didn’t need any more spectacular homer-robbing catches for this particular win. He inflicted enough damage with his feet in the dirt, be it the basepaths or the batter’s box, to nudge the Dodgers a little closer to their first championship since 1988.
Tuesday’s postgame Zoom poll of a handful of Dodgers revealed different Mookie favorites. Kershaw and Roberts went with the opposite-field home run off Rays reliever Josh Fleming — just Betts’ second in 34 career postseason games. Cody Bellinger, whose two-run blast in the fourth gave L.A. a 2-0 lead, preferred Betts' swiping of third base on a double steal. By doing so, Betts became only the second player in postseason history with a walk and two stolen bases in one inning — the other was Babe Ruth, in 1921.
"It's really unbelievable," Bellinger said. "It's so fun to watch and we're so lucky to have him on our team. I just say he's a superstar guy, a superstar talent, but he does all the little things right, and you can really learn from that when a guy is that good and he just wants to win. He just continues to do the small things that go unnoticed by a lot of people."
One of those small things was the ambitious secondary lead Betts took at third base in that pivotal fifth inning. Rays starter Tyler Glasnow didn’t do himself any favors with a leadoff walk to Betts, who rattled him with a pair of stolen bases before inching far enough off third to make a bold dash for the plate on Max Muncy’s grounder to first baseman Yandy Diaz — with the infield playing in, no less.
Diaz still made a great effort ranging to his right to deliver a strong throw home. The difference? The few extra feet Betts inched down the line before his speed enabled a headfirst slide to beat the tag. At the time, Betts’ run put the Dodgers up 3-1, but he paved the way for three additional runs — on three singles — as Glasnow crumbled.
"I think I'm the most proud of the contact play at third," Betts said. "Got a run obviously there, then it was first and third and we scored a couple more. So I think we just kind of kept the line moving. So a good play there and got to give credit to the hitters that came up after driving in runs and keeping the constant pressure."
Betts supplied one of the Dodgers’ two homers, but five of their eight runs took more time to manufacture, and the team takes their cues from Mookie on that. In 2020, you’re not even supposed to be stealing bases anymore, from an analytics perspective. For Betts, however, it’s an integral part of his baseball DNA. Those three stolen bases for the Dodgers in the fifth? No team had done that in a World Series since the 1912 New York Giants.
"That's just another element that Mookie brings," Roberts said. "He does a lot of studying, and to be able to create stress, whether it's stealing a base or just being on base to make the pitcher speed up or not execute a pitch, he creates tension. He’s a heck of a ballplayer."
Said Betts: "Stolen bases are a thing for me — it's how I create runs. It’s how I cause a little havoc on the bases. Once I get on the basepaths, I’m just trying to touch home. How I get there is how I get there, but I'm going to be aggressive."
Betts may be done calling the AL East home, but the Rays are stuck dealing with him again this week. On Tuesday, they already had seen enough. And if Betts keeps tormenting them like he did in Game 1, at least Tampa Bay’s frustration could be mercifully short.
"Mookie’s pretty special," Kershaw said. "He just does things on a baseball field that not many people can do. And he does it very consistently, which I think separates him from a lot of guys."
His separation from the Red Sox is something that’s going to be revisited for a very long time in New England, especially if Betts helps the Dodgers successfully complete this title run.