When Mookie Betts stepped into the batter’s box for the final time on Friday night, the stakes were minimal — except they weren’t.
The Dodgers had a six-run lead over the New York Yankees in the bottom of the eighth inning. But there were two outs, which meant Betts had to reach base for Freddie Freeman to have a chance to extend his 20-game hitting streak.
Betts knew what was on the line.
“Absolutely,” he said with a smile. “All of us did.”
Betts singled to center, but his effort to assist Freeman went beyond that.
“That’s why I only had like a three-foot lead, just to make sure I didn’t get picked off or anything like that,” Betts said.
Freeman lined out to short, but the end of his streak in the Dodgers’ 8-4 triumph wasn’t as important as what Betts’ gesture represented.
The atmosphere surrounding the team has changed, and the Dodgers are better for it.
Yet, somehow, their offense is better.
They’re scoring more runs, an average of 5.6 per game after their 8-4 victory over the Yankees on Friday night. The figure marks an improvement from their average of 5.2 last year.
“Regardless of who we have or don’t have, I think it’s pretty impressive how much we’re scoring,” pitcher Clayton Kershaw said. “I don’t know a time where I feel like we’ve scored five or six runs every single night. It’s one of the better stretches that I remember around here, for sure.”
The Dodgers entered Saturday as the highest-scoring team in the National League with 327 runs.
Their offense propped up a bullpen that was inconsistent early in the season. Their offense is now making up for the problems of their injury-ravaged rotation.
The Dodgers sacrificed upside by not reinforcing their roster with premium free agents. But they did more than save money with their decision to rely on unproven rookies and aging veterans. They built more of a team.
The cynical view would be that many of their players aren’t good enough to complain about the sacrifices they’re making on behalf of the team, but the Dodgers are once again on pace to win close to 100 games with an entirely unremarkable group of players making up the back half of their lineup.
“I think, ideally, everyone would like to have nine guys who can plug and play for 162 [games,] but that’s just not a reality,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I think a mark of this team is the unselfishness. Everyone wants to be out there. But I do feel for us to be able to mix and match, give guys rest, keep them healthy, keep them healthy, that’s a good thing, and they all understand that.”
The players have also bought into the team’s offensive philosophy. As The Los Angeles Times' Jack Harris wrote earlier in the week, as the Dodgers entered their series against the Yankees, no team had swung at fewer pitches. No team had swung at fewer pitches outside of the zone either.
The Dodgers’ swing and chase rates were both lower than they were last year, the approach explaining why the team leads the National League in home runs (100 through Friday) and the majors in walks (247).
None of this would work, of course, without the team’s signature players, who are concentrated at the top of the order. Their first three hitters are three of the best hitters in the game — Betts, Freeman and Will Smith.
Betts blasted his 14th and 15th homers of the season in the series opener against the Yankees, prompting Roberts to call him “the modern-day Rickey Henderson.”
“He’s instant offense,” Roberts said.
Freeman, who batted .400 last month, should be an MVP candidate. Smith is on track to make his first All-Star Game.
“Definitely, the top of the lineup, you can’t ease your way into the game, for sure,” Kershaw said.
Yankees starter Luis Severino experienced this firsthand, the Dodgers pounding him for six runs in the first inning of his start on Friday night. The Dodgers’ unorthodox formula worked again, even against one of the best teams in the American League.
Whether these Dodgers will remain effective in October is another matter. Come the playoffs, they could very well turn into another top-heavy Dodgers team with too many automatic outs. For now, however, this will suffice. They have the necessary firepower to reach the postseason. They have enough offense to win their division.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.