If this World Series is different for the Dodgers, the difference may be Mookie Betts

The game looks for a place to go on nights such as these, late in October, when there are a couple teams left and just a few dozen men to choose from.

The top step of one dugout or the other, sometimes. The arm of a lefty with a past whose heart beats slow. Maybe it waits on the random bat barrel, just for the fun of it, to keep the conversation vigorous.

Or, it just goes to the best player on the field.

It goes to Mookie Betts.

He’ll make the catch hanging in the air. He’ll outrun the baseball to a base. He’ll hit a ball over the fence. In what they’ll call a team game and then go stand by themselves for hours at a time, it is Betts who makes them all better. At the end of a season in which in-game technology had to be minimized in order to save the sport from itself, it was Betts, the guy who played the angles, who was clever, who seemingly saw it before it happened, who was breathtaking.

The Los Angeles Dodgers won Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night in Arlington, Texas, which is quite separate from actually winning the World Series. And still they are the franchise with a recent history with the World Series, starting a pitcher in the first game with a bit of a history in the World Series himself, and so playing themselves a day or two further from that seemed a sturdy first step.

To the question of why the Dodgers have not won a championship in 32 years and how they could possibly win so many division titles lately and still be polishing a trophy from 1988, a reasonable answer through one short season followed by one crowded October is, well, they’ve never had Mookie Betts before.

In an 8-3 win at Globe Life Field, before a crowd of 11,388 that leaned Dodgers, across a game in which Clayton Kershaw pitched six meticulous innings, Betts homered, singled, walked, stole two bases, scored twice and drew the game toward him. In the months since the Boston Red Sox chose to remake themselves into something — it’s hard to say what — that did not include him, Betts has lifted a Dodgers team that a year ago must have wondered what it lacked. And in an era in which NL West titles became automatic, in which they gathered end-of-season trophies, in which they were victims of a cheating scandal and then a team driven by Betts himself, the Dodgers will win or lose October 2020 in the contrails of this ballplayer who has no clear weakness.

In his first season in the National League, he was with one or two others a transcendent player. He batted .429 in his first playoff series, then .333 in the second. He took away three hits, one of them a home run, in a seven-game NLCS that in the end was decided by an inch or two. He dressed for a World Series for the second time in three Octobers, and in the first 3 ½ hours of that, he lit up the basepaths in a game that was close until he decided otherwise. He leaned into and disrupted a game he maybe figured would be decided in ways other than the home run, which is not how typical games are won anymore, and then just to be safe jumped a first-pitch sinker in the sixth inning that landed four rows deep in right field.

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 20: Mookie Betts #50 of the Los Angeles Dodgers steals third base in the fifth inning of Game 1 of the 2020 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays at Globe Life Field on Tuesday, October 20, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Mookie Betts stole two bases, scampered home on a fielder's choice and later homered to lift the Dodgers to a victory in World Series Game 1. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

There’d perhaps be an argument to be had over whether the game found him or he found it, except it sure does seem to pick him a lot, considering he’s one of nine on the field and can only hit when his turn comes around. So this is how we tell the merely good from the special, when a game spread across four or five acres can just attach itself to a guy, night after night.

“Yeah, Mookie’s pretty special,” Kershaw said on the occasion of his fifth career World Series start and second win. “He does things on the baseball field that not many people can do. And he does it very consistently, which separates him from a lot of guys.”

Kershaw then pointed out there were others, among them Cody Bellinger, who homered, and Corey Seager, who was pitched around for most of the game, and Justin Turner, who twice reached base. Indeed, only a year ago, it was Bellinger who’d set a season afire, only to fall again in October under a hail of back-foot sliders and chest-high fastballs. After one game, and a win at that, there was plenty of love to go around.

And yet even if there wasn’t a statistical linchpin to a game or two for Betts (and there was), there remains the occasionally ethereal sense that what you’re watching is uncommon.

So when Kershaw was asked what stood out to him over the nine innings they’d just completed, he said, “Probably the home run. That’s probably the most impressive thing. But, like I said before, I think it’s just the baserunning, the consistency of everything that he does, the defense. He does some special things like hit homers and take the extra base and things like that. But I think the day-in, day-out consistency of what he does on a baseball field separates him. So you might see one game and not really appreciate Mookie to his full potential. But now that we’ve seen it for a full — or COVID-shortened — but a full season for us, you kind of get to appreciate it on a day-in, day-out basis now.”

Given options to choose how Betts best moved a close game over four innings to a runaway through five to an easy win through nine, Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes chose a steal of third base in the fifth, Kershaw took the sixth-inning home run, Bellinger also went with the stolen base, manager Dave Roberts replied, “That oppo home run was pretty impressive,” and Betts himself answered, “The contact play at third,” that followed a five-pitch walk, a steal of second, a steal of third, that led to the Dodgers’ third run, and the unraveling of Rays starter Tyler Glasnow.

“Just showed,” Betts said, “we don’t have to hit home runs to be successful.”

The Rays and manager Kevin Cash considered the convergence of Glasnow, the big and strong right-hander who hadn’t wholly settled on his catcher’s mitt across four innings, and the Dodgers, who’d already taken four walks and waited out nine three-ball counts before the fifth inning. The Rays trailed by a run. The Dodgers would send the top of their order, so starting with Betts. Glasnow had thrown 86 pitches, which aren’t a lot, maybe, unless you’ve just finished the fourth inning. It had been three days since anyone in the Rays’ bullpen had thrown an inning.

The Rays and Cash chose to ride Glasnow for at least a little while longer. Glasnow walked the first two batters, Betts and then Corey Seager, so the decision seemed regrettable. Then Glasnow pitched to three more batters and two of them reached base. Four more runs were in. Glasnow was at 112 pitches an out into the fifth inning.

Only then did the bullpen door open. The inning worsened for the Rays anyway. A one-run deficit became five. By the end of the sixth inning, where Betts homered, it was seven.

By then, of course, it was clear where World Series Game 1 was headed. And why. Because it had found Mookie Betts, because he’d found it, and because sometimes neither one can help themselves.

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