Mookie Betts was moved back into the leadoff spot on Thursday night and he made a pretty solid case to spend every game there for the next 12 years.
Betts slugged three of the Dodgers’ six home runs and drove in five in an 11-2 rout of the Padres that put the Dodgers back into a tie for first place. Betts joined Sammy Sosa and Johnny Mize as the only players in MLB history with six career three-homer games. He also was hit by a pitch in his first plate appearance and legged out an infield single in his last at-bat. That’s 4-for-4 with four runs scored and five RBIs.
So, Betts is the focal point of an epic blockbuster trade, then signs a monster contract extension and has every reason to feel the pressure, to press, to try to do too much. Turns out, he can do it all, but he’s had his moments of apprehension.
“Of course. I’m human,” said Betts. “But I work so hard, man, I work so hard to be successful. To see success, it’s a sigh of relief. But I’m hungry to be successful and I have that in my back pocket. I have to learn new pitchers, that will be the hardest part, but I’ll work my butt off to be the best I can be.”
Betts is batting .319. He leads the club with seven home runs, 15 RBIs, a 1.074 OPS. He turned Julio Urías’ 6 1/3 innings, Chris Taylor’s 3-for-4 with two doubles, and home runs by the returning Corey Seager, AJ Pollock and Austin Barnes into footnotes.
Manager Dave Roberts recalled an intrasquad game during Summer Camp when he saw for himself what all the fuss was about.
“I didn’t realize, he’s not that big of frame, it’s more power than I expected,” Roberts said. “The way he can leverage a baseball really impresses me. In Summer Camp he said he was struggling, couldn’t put the bat on the ball, and in an intrasquad game he put it in the middle of the left-field pavilion and I just really couldn’t believe it. Fenway has the short left field but to see it in our park at night, it checked me up a bit, excited me.”
Until Thursday, the one-third point of the season, Betts batted first in the order against left-handed pitchers and second against right-handed pitchers. But with left-handed hitters Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Joc Pederson struggling and Seager returning from five days off with a bad back, Roberts jettisoned his favored matchups and had Betts lead off against San Diego righty Chris Paddack.
Roberts conceded there’s a good chance Betts will be back atop the lineup Friday night in Anaheim against left-hander Patrick Sandoval. Roberts and Betts talked during Spring Training about where the outfielder would bat and the conversations renewed in the last few days, leading to Thursday night’s change.
“I welcome those conversations,” said Roberts. “At the end of the day, he’s all about the team.”
Betts -- who has led off in 567 of his 796 games started -- conceded batting first is the most natural spot for him.
“I’ve been doing it my whole life, so I think I’m just comfortable there,” said Betts. “You only lead off once, but I enjoy getting things started. Creating havoc on the basepaths. Trying to score one in the first, I definitely take pride in doing that. It’s just a comfort thing.”
Paddack’s second pitch of the game drilled Betts on the left thigh. Betts said he didn’t consider it intentional, but from that point on, it was the Dodgers hitting Paddack. Seager, in his first game in five days, followed with a home run. Two outs later, Pollock homered.
Then Betts went off with a two-run shot in the second inning. He was on the tail end of back-to-back homers with Barnes in the fourth off Luis Perdomo and a two-run shot off Perdomo in the fifth. In the seventh, with a chance to join Gil Hodges and Shawn Green for a fourth home run, he legged out an infield single.