PITTSBURGH -- It’s been a disappointing start to the season for Dodgers star outfielder Mookie Betts.
The former MVP has dealt with nagging back, shoulder and forearm injuries throughout the season and hasn’t quite found his groove at the plate. Betts, however, entered Thursday’s game still producing an OPS of .792, which is well above league average. But it’s still been a frustrating start for Betts, who holds himself to a higher standard, even calling his 2020 season “serviceable” despite finishing second in NL MVP voting.
Maybe things are finally starting to turn for Betts, as he put his tools on full display in the Dodgers’ 6-3 win over the Pirates on Thursday at PNC Park that was called in the eighth inning due to rain. With the win, the Dodgers completed the three-game sweep and finished the six-game road trip with a 4-2 record. It’s also their 13th consecutive win against the Pirates.
Betts wasted no time getting the Dodgers on the board, unloading on a 2-0 fastball from Pirates right-hander Mitch Keller that stayed over the middle of the plate. The ball had an exit velocity of 106.6 mph and traveled 417 feet. It was Betts’ 22nd career leadoff homer. But more important, it was a much-needed swing for Betts, who hadn’t homered since May 18.
“I’ve been working a lot,” Betts said. “I feel like I’ve been pretty close here lately and I’ve been hitting the ball harder more consistently. So I mean, I don’t know about a home run, but I do feel like I’m swinging the bat a little bit better.”
He’s certainly swinging it better.
With a 2-for-4 performance on Thursday, Betts is batting .314 (11-for-35) with five extra-base hits over his last nine games. Betts’ OPS is now .813 this season, which is still his lowest since the 2017 season.
“I just feel that he’s been close,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “I think the great thing about Mookie is he swings at strikes when he’s right, takes balls, and when the ball is in the hitting zone, he moves it forward. I think at times this year he’s missed some pitches that he should’ve handled and I just felt he was getting really close. When he’s aggressive, I just think good things are going to come.”
While the Dodgers are still confident that Betts will eventually find more success at the plate, one of the odd things about the outfielder’s season up to this point is that his defense hasn’t been as good as it has been in previous years. It’s been good, but not quite the same level of defense that has helped Betts win five Gold Gloves.
In the second inning on Thursday, Betts showed why he has all that hardware.
After fumbling a ball in the right-field corner, helping the Pirates tie the game at one, Betts made up for it on the very next at-bat. With Erik González at third, Betts caught a shallow fly ball as he ran to his left. He then spun around before firing off a 86.5 mph strike to home plate to nab González at the plate, keeping the game tied. The speed of the throw is particularly impressive given the weird angle and the difficulty that comes with spinning and throwing on the move.
“I just saw it and I knew I had to do everything I can to stay on my feet, and I knew that once I got to a point where I could catch it, I tried to kind of get myself ready to throw, and I felt like the spin was going to be the easiest way to keep my momentum,” Betts said.
“It just speaks to how talented and athletic he is,” Roberts added. “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. It was incredible.”
Betts also showed off his baserunning tool, stealing third base standing up and later scoring in the eighth inning. It was Betts’ first stolen base since May 14.
It hasn’t been easy for Betts so far this season, but he looked a little bit more like the Dodgers’ $365 million man on Thursday.
“I would be very hard-pressed to say he’s not one of the two best players in the game,” said Pirates manager Derek Shelton. “There’s nothing this guy can’t do: He defends, he throws, he hits, he hits for power, he runs the bases. This guy is unbelievable.”