Mookie Betts wasn’t supposed to be in the lineup Tuesday, scheduled for a rare day off after a recent tear at the plate.
But center fielder Cody Bellinger woke up not feeling well, according to manager Dave Roberts. The team had to tweak its plans. And Betts asked to stay in the lineup as the leadoff hitter.
“He came to me,” Roberts later recalled, “and said, ‘I know we talked about taking the day off. But I want to be in there.’”
In his latest dominant display, Betts made the decision count.
He erased the Dodgers’ early deficit with a three-run blast in the second. He added on in their blowout with a solo shot in the fourth. He also had a walk and base hit, continuing a month-long stretch that Roberts believes has been Betts’ best in a Dodgers uniform.
“He’s playing MVP-type baseball, he really is,” Roberts said. “He’s scoring runs at a crazy clip. He’s on base. He’s slugging at a ridiculous clip too. And he’s playing Gold Glove defense. He’s making the game look a lot easier than it is.”
When Betts hit his first home run, Tuesday’s game was still up in the air.
The Dodgers (29-13) had taken an early 2-0 lead on Trea Turner’s two-run blast in the top of the first, but the Nationals responded by scoring three times against Walker Buehler in the bottom of the inning on four hits and a run-scoring error.
After Chris Taylor singled and Gavin Lux walked, however, Betts got hold of an inside slider from Josiah Gray, taking the former Dodgers prospect deep with a line drive that sneaked just inside the foul pole in left.
“Pretty normal,” Betts said when asked about his confidence level of late. “Just having fun and enjoying the game, man, and taking it one pitch and one at-bat at a time.”
The game was out of reach by the time Betts returned to the plate two innings later. Buehler had settled down, finding a groove on his way to a six-inning start in which he didn’t allow another run. The Dodgers had increased their lead on a two-run homer from Taylor in the third.
But even after turning to their bullpen, the Nationals (14-30) couldn’t stop Betts.
Against reliever Víctor Arano, Betts got another inside slider. Once again, he put it in the left-field seats, taking the NL home run lead and moving into a tie for second among all major leaguers (only the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge has more with 17).
“It’s not a bucket-list item,” Betts said of vying for a home run title, “but if it happens, it happens.”
He added: “Right now, all I care about is scoring runs and getting some RBIs. … I’m just laughing and joking and really sitting back and enjoying it.”
Twenty-seven days ago, Betts was in a much different place.
Mired in an early-season slump, he had only two home runs in 16 games. His batting average was under .200. And he was searching for the right feel, both with his mentality and mechanics at the plate.
“[I made] a couple of mechanics changes,” Betts said of his turnaround over the last month.
“But the most important thing is the mindset … going in, even with a bad swing, and having confidence you can still get by with some things.”
Since then, the former MVP has raised his batting average to .292. He has collected at least one hit in 21 of his last 24 games, and at least two in 11 of them.
Over the last two weeks, his underrated power has returned as well. Fourteen of his last 20 hits have been for extra bases (seven doubles, seven home runs).
His .963 on-base-plus-slugging percentage this season ranks eighth in the league.
“It’s all about Mookie right now,” Roberts said. “He’s just carrying us right now, playing excellent baseball.”
As of Tuesday night, the Dodgers’ new plan was to give Betts a rest on Wednesday — though it could depend on how Bellinger feels (Roberts said pregame he wasn’t too concerned about Bellinger’s health, and that the outfielder had not been tested for the coronavirus).
Asked if he was tempted to change his mind after Betts’ latest outburst, Roberts grinned.
“I don’t want to renege on the deal,” Roberts said. “But, gosh, he makes us a lot better ballclub when he’s in there.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.