'Real deal' Mookie pushed LA into title mode

Betts 'set the tone' in spring, sparks Game 6 win with speed, HR

October 28th, 2020

Kiké Hernández has been a Dodger a long time. Not Clayton Kershaw long, but long enough to know how the 2020 Dodgers stacked up against the franchise’s most recent powerhouse teams, including pennant-winners in 2017 and ’18. So when Hernández says this team was the best of them, it has some weight.

What stood out about this group?

“Obviously, it's how great is as a player,” Hernández said before Betts delivered two more huge hits and another burst of brilliant baserunning in a 3-1 Dodgers victory to win the World Series in six games on Tuesday night. “Playing in the National League, you don't really get to watch American League players that often, especially on a daily basis.

“And Mookie Betts is the real deal.”

Betts was 12 years old and playing on sandlots in Nashville when folks first noticed his off-the-charts baseball IQ. It may be his best tool, which is saying something for a player who has all of them. On any other night, in any other game, Betts might have been managing along when Rays skipper Kevin Cash popped out of the opposing team's dugout in the sixth inning and signaled to his bullpen.

Betts had been readying to face Rays starter Blake Snell. In their regular-season matchups, Betts had some success against Snell, but not in this World Series. The left-hander had controlled the matchup to the tune of 0-for-5 with four strikeouts and had his best stuff in Game 6, working on a shutout. With Betts on deck and the Dodgers in a 1-0 hole, Austin Barnes punched a single through the infield for Los Angeles’ second hit.

Before Betts could get to the batter’s box, Cash called for Nick Anderson, a right-handed reliever who was arguably the Rays’ best bullpen arm during the regular season but entered the night having surrendered a run in six straight postseason games. Now he was trotting to the mound.

“I’m not exactly sure why,” Betts said of the move. “I’m not going to ask any questions.”

The Dodgers did their best to hide their glee. Snell’s stuff was “gross,” said Cody Bellinger, offering high praise from a hitter and joking that the Dodgers got Snell out of the game by the sixth inning, just as planned. The Dodgers’ dugout was “uplifted” when the Rays made the move, said World Series MVP Corey Seager. Betts later said he breathed a sigh of relief, and wondered aloud whether Snell might have finished the game had the Rays not pulled him from the mound. He was that effective, Betts said.

“Once Austin got that hit and they went to the 'pen,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “I think that Mookie looked at me with a little smile.”

A player whose fingerprints were all over the Dodgers’ championship run -- starting with the morning he surprised his new teammates a week into his tenure and challenged them to match his drive -- was about to put his fingerprints all over the clincher. Betts greeted Anderson with a double over third base, pushing Barnes to third. Barnes soon would score the tying run on a wild pitch, with Betts advancing to third.

With Seager batting, the Dodgers put on the contact play. Seager hit a bouncer to first baseman Ji-Man Choi and Betts dashed home, scoring the run that would make the Dodgers World Series champions with a headfirst slide.

“We made that decision when Corey came up, just understanding that Mookie would get a great jump on the swing,” Roberts said. “I trust him.”

Two innings later, Betts provided the punctuation mark for a Dodgers offense that led the Major Leagues in home runs. His solo homer off Pete Fairbanks in the bottom of the eighth made Betts, whose trade from the Red Sox to the Dodgers just before the start of Spring Training shook the baseball world before the world seemed to turn on its head, the final Major Leaguer to get a hit and score a run in what was a strange 2020 season.

Betts finished with an .898 OPS in the World Series and an .871 OPS in his first postseason with the Dodgers, including eight doubles, two home runs and 15 runs scored. But statistics only scratch the surface of his contributions.

In the National League Wild Card Series against the Brewers, Betts did it with the bat, hitting a trio of doubles, including one for two RBIs in a 3-0 victory in Game 2, for a sweep of the dangerously short series.

In the NL Division Series against the Padres, another Dodgers sweep, Betts did it with his legs, leading the way with Seager on a double steal that helped the Dodgers add two crucial insurance runs in what became a harrowing, 6-5 win that denied upstart San Diego an opportunity to ever get into the series.

And in the NL Championship Series, Betts did it with his glove, making highlight-reel defensive plays in Games 5, 6 and 7 as the Dodgers fought back from a 3-1 series deficit. No play was better than his leaping home run robbery of the Braves’ Freddie Freeman in the decisive Game 7.

All that after Betts was the league’s most valuable player during the regular season, at least as measured by Baseball-Reference WAR (3.4). For the result of the Baseball Writers’ Association of American NL MVP Award, Betts must wait a few more weeks. He’s a leading candidate with Freeman, Seager and others.

“He strives to be perfect, to be excellent every single time,” Kershaw said. “That focus, that consistency. I don’t know how much better he made every single guy, but I know it did some.”

That effort began early. Less than a week into his first Spring Training with the Dodgers, Betts texted Roberts and asked if he could address the team. He also requested Kershaw’s telephone number and asked whether the longest-tenured Dodger would mind if Betts shared some thoughts.

“I said do whatever you think,” Kershaw said. “It’s not about superstar status or being a World Series champion [from Betts’ Red Sox days] like he is. He wanted to make us better as a team and he wanted to be a part of that. He saw some things to help out. I appreciated his phone call, but he didn’t have to do that.”

Said Roberts: “I was like, ‘Whatever you have to say, I’m going to support.’ Clayton was the same way. Not knowing all of his teammates -- that was the first day of full-squad workouts. I know David Price was surprised, knowing Mookie for years prior, and how he stepped to the forefront. It was just very genuine, very authentic.”

The message, according to Roberts, boiled down to, “how you do anything is how you do everything.” In other words, practice as hard as you play a World Series game.

“That set the tone” for the whole year, Roberts said.

“I think we worked so hard from Spring Training to now,” Betts said. “We executed when it was time to execute. When our backs were against the wall, we came back. We overcame adversity. Everything is special about this group of guys. We love each other, we played for each other, and not just the Dodgers -- that's how great teams are made.”

Betts was asked Tuesday night how this World Series championship compared to 2018, when his Red Sox beat Roberts, Kershaw and the Dodgers. It was different, Betts said. In ‘18, he didn’t know what to expect. In ‘20, he knew exactly what to expect, and he was playing for a Dodgers team burdened for years by the weight of expectations.

“You know, I was traded to help get us over the hump, so I used that as my fuel since Day 1,” Betts said. “That has obviously been the goal, to win the World Series, and so I'm just happy to be a part of it.”