NEW YORK -- A full 24 hours before Mookie Betts helped the Red Sox clinch the American League East in the most fitting of ways -- by notching an 11-6 win over the Yankees behind a signature performance from their most dynamic player -- Alex Cora sat his superstar down.The
NEW YORK -- A full 24 hours before Mookie Betts helped the Red Sox clinch the American League East in the most fitting of ways -- by notching an 11-6 win over the Yankees behind a signature performance from their most dynamic player -- Alex Cora sat his superstar down.
The manager's message was simple: He implored Betts, whose production dipped in September due to a nagging side injury, to relax. Why worry? Why press? The Red Sox's regular-season fate was all but assured. Betts had already spent the summer spectacularly, swinging his way to the head of the AL MVP discussion. At this point, only round-number milestones -- 30 home runs, 30 stolen bases, a batting title -- remained for him to reach.
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"You," Cora told Betts, "are the best player in the league."
Flash forward to Thursday, when Betts responded with the type of game that typified why he's become perhaps just that, not just to his manager, but to the industry as a whole. DH-ing for the second straight night in part to ease the burden on his balky left side, Betts nearly single-handedly dragged his team to its postgame champagne party, doubling twice and homering as part of a four-hit, five-RBI night in Boston's division-clinching win in the Bronx.
M-V-P chants greeted him after the final out. Beer showers then awaited in the clubhouse, where Betts agreed the performance was the best of the season, his best in the Majors and maybe the best by a Major Leaguer, period, circa 2018.
"The chants mean you've done something well. I've had a great season and I'm just trying to soak it in right now," Betts said. "If it comes, it comes. But the most important thing is winning the World Series."
Though their division crown had been a foregone conclusion for weeks, Boston's win Thursday assured officially for the first time that the Fall Classic, for the third straight year, will indeed be a possibility. That fact that should help buoy Betts' case to MVP voters, though sharing a lineup with fellow candidate J.D. Martinez might hurt him just as much.
Ultimately, the bulk of Betts' candidacy will be wrapped up in the myriad ways he impacts a game, a skillset rooted in the array of offensive abilities he showcased Thursday. Betts doubled and scored the Red Sox's first run off Masahiro Tanaka in the first, singled home two more in the second, doubled and scored again in the fifth, and cranked a three-run homer -- his 30th -- to put the game away off Albertin Chapman in the eighth. All told, Betts finished 4-for-5. He scored three runs and drove in five.
"He's a great talent," Martinez said. "I have to remind him sometimes how good he really is."
If feeling unsure, Betts can just look at the numbers for himself. They're there in bunches, both traditional and analytical, his elite production plain to see. In short:
• Betts' night Thursday pushed him back atop the MLB leaderboard -- past Michael Trout -- in Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement (9.4).
• Betts also leads all MLB players in hitting (.339), ranks second in runs (121), on-base percentage (.432) and wRC+ (180), and third in slugging (.625).
• He is the first Red Sox player since Ted Williams to record 40 doubles, five triples and 30 home runs in two seasons, this year including.
• He is two steals shy of his first 30-30 season, and would join Jose Ramirez as the only other player this year to reach the plateau.
• He's walked 78 times against just 86 strikeouts, and ranks among the game's top outfielders and best baserunners by a variety a metrics.
Whether that's enough to win in a field with Martinez, Trout, Ramirez and Alex Bregman, remains to be seen. Either way, Betts won't know until after October, after the Red Sox have either achieved or fallen short of their ultimate goal. After Thursday, at last, they can at least peek that far ahead.
"Last year I had some good spurts and some really bad. This year, being more consistent is something I'm very proud of," Betts said. "But we've had so many moments this year as a team, everybody contributing. It hasn't been just one guy. You've seen so many moments and that's how we've won 100 games."
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.