Passan: How Betts just made the super-sabermetric World Series super-fun

MLB

ARLINGTON, Texas — In 1921, George Herman Ruth, better known as Babe, drew a walk and stole two bases in the fifth inning of a World Series game. In 2020, Markus Lynn Betts, better known as Mookie, drew a walk and stole two bases in the fifth inning of a World Series game. Over the 99 years, with hundreds of games and thousands of innings between these events, nobody managed the feat in a World Series game.

That it happens to be Ruth who last mustered the deed is an inspired bit of baseball whimsy, considering the other tie that binds him to Betts. Both were traded by the Boston Red Sox: Ruth to the New York Yankees in a 1919 deal that history considers sports’ greatest all-time fleecing and Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers this year in a far-less-lopsided yet still emotionally consuming swap. Unlike with Ruth, Boston had seen Betts at his peak. The city knew what it was losing.

Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday was the Mookie Betts show. Clayton Kershaw earned a Best Supporting Actor statuette, and sundry other Dodgers earned their scale, but Betts, on baseball’s biggest stage, surrounded by some of its best players, managed to differentiate himself. He married the game of Ruth’s era with its modern version. His dynamism overwhelmed the Tampa Bay Rays, just as it did the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series, just as it did all season, just as it has for a half-decade. Although he scored only two of Los Angeles’ runs in its 8-3 victory before a decidedly pro-Dodgers crowd of 11,388 at Globe Life Field, Betts left his fingerprints all over the things he stole, from bases to the series advantage.

When the Dodgers traded outfielder Alex Verdugo and shortstop prospect Jeter Downs for Betts and David Price in February, they did so with Tuesday night in mind. The Dodgers lost the World Series in 2017 and ’18. They built a player-development juggernaut, could spend money to match any team and still didn’t win. Betts was the separator.

In the fifth inning Tuesday, with the Dodgers leading 2-1, he separated. First, he drew a walk from Rays starter Tyler Glasnow. Then he stole second and became a hero to fans everywhere with the munchies by earning them a free taco through a promotion tied to stolen bases, which happen to be enough of an anachronism in baseball that seeing one in a game is double-take-worthy. A double steal, which Betts and Corey Seager then pulled off, is practically unheard of.

Betts’ greatest coup remained. There is an art to baserunning — to rounding bases properly, to leading off a base, to understanding scenarios as they unfold. The secondary lead — a few extra hops and a step toward the next base as the pitch is delivered — is something Betts does as well as anyone. When Max Muncy chopped a one-hopper that Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz fielded and wheeled home, his throw was slightly up the line, in decent shape to get a mortal running. Instead, it was Betts.

He heaved his body toward home — batting glove sticking out of his right rear pocket, sliding glove on his left hand, gold chain flopping around like it hadn’t a care in the world. Catcher Mike Zunino swept the tag. Too late. The Dodgers led 3-1. That lead expanded to 6-1 by the end of the fifth. It was 8-1 an inning later, with the first of those runs coming on a Betts opposite-field home run around the same vicinity where in NLCS Games 6 and 7 he made spectacular catches against the wall.

All of these elements, they’re Betts’ array of talent dictating what baseball can be. The one-dimensionality of the game in 2020 does not translate in Betts’ world. He hits. He fields. He runs. He plays long ball. He plays small ball. He molds himself to a moment. And the Dodgers follow.

“Mookie,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “is gonna get the best of everybody.”

The Dodgers, meanwhile, are getting the best of him, and that gives them an unmatched catalytic presence. After Betts’ slide around Zunino, the Dodgers followed with an RBI single, an RBI single and an RBI single. It was like a time warp back to the ’80s, before front offices believed that to make a stolen base worthwhile you need about an 80% success rate. In a World Series, in which every out is precious, the prospect of losing even one petrifies managers, so, by and large, they don’t run.

This series, between a Rays organization whose deftness with analytics has helped turn it into a baseball think tank and a Dodgers organization that uses similar principles but can leverage its financial advantage to weaponize them, had all the makings of a new-school, bullpen-heavy, matchup melee — and it might yet evolve into that.

Game 1, though? From Betts’ wheels to the quick-hook Rays leaving starter Tyler Glasnow in to throw 112 pitches despite his ineffectiveness, it was throwback day. The fifth inning in particular, with Betts running and Glasnow battling and the Dodgers’ lineup peppering RBI singles all over the field, might as well have been staged by players wearing flannel uniforms.

To win a World Series, it takes more than conventional wisdom or whatever passes for that today. If for a game or two or three or four it means playing the brand of baseball that the game and situation dictate, then evolve good teams will. The Rays might need to ditch the homer-or-bust ethos that got them here. Already Kevin Cash, their manager, did the exact opposite of what one would have thought with Glasnow. He’s plenty capable of more zags.

But for as much as Cash says Randy Arozarena is the Cuban Mookie Betts … he isn’t. Betts is a singular figure, with each of the five tools abundantly clear and a level of energy that, were it calculable, surely would rate as well-above-average, too.

“Mookie’s pretty special,” Kershaw said. “He does things on a baseball field that not many people can do, and he does it very consistently, which I think separates him from other guys.”

That sounds a lot like the Dodgers, actually. They do things others don’t. They do those things consistently. That’s why they won 43 of 60 regular-season games. That’s why they entered the postseason as — and remain — distinct World Series favorites. That’s why their three-games-to-one NLCS deficit to Atlanta registered as such a shock and their eventual pennant rebalanced the sport’s order.

In the middle of it all is Betts, elemental. Without him, the Dodgers don’t become the first team since 1991 to homer twice and swipe three bases in a World Series game. Without him, perhaps they’re still a guy short, and this drought goes on. And it might still. Baseball is twisted that way. What it giveth in Game 1 it might taketh away in Game 2.

What won’t change is Mookie Betts. He signed a 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers this year. Almost instantly, he embraced his position as the team’s fulcrum, even amid stars, homegrown players and others with tenure. He does it for these games, those moments, the piece of metal that allows baseball players to call themselves champions.

When he does it, those who saw all of his success in Boston can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. It’s not right, really, and it’s not reasonable, especially considering that Betts might have left via free agency anyway. But it’s the same feeling as a century ago: regret commingling with admiration, the feeling of knowing what you lost and loving it anyway because it’s impossible not to.

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