Dave Roberts still remembers the at-bat, the critical moment when Mookie Betts broke the Dodgers’ back two Octobers ago.
For most of the 2018 World Series, Dodgers pitchers had held Betts in check. The outfielder was about to be named that season’s American League MVP, yet he recorded only four hits and no RBIs through four games.
“I think we kept him really at bay,” Roberts said recently. “Until Game 5.”
Specifically, the sixth inning of that deciding fifth game.
At that point, the Dodgers’ chances of a World Series comeback were slim but alive. They were down three games to one in the series and trailed, 2-1, in a home elimination game. But as long as it remained a one-run deficit, they were only one swing away from tying the score, recapturing momentum, and having a shot to send the series back to Boston.
Betts all but ended those hopes, waiting out a low two-strike slider from Clayton Kershaw to wallop a solo home run into the left-field bleachers. Kershaw’s knees buckled. Dodger Stadium groaned. A late-inning surge for the Red Sox, who went on to a 5-1 title-clinching win, had begun.
As usual, Betts was right in the middle of it.
“We actually pitched him pretty well, but you just know the talent,” Roberts recalled, thankful to now have Betts atop the Dodgers' lineup — where he figures to play a key role in their 2020 postseason run.
“I’ve talked about it many times over. Just to see him day to day. A special, special person.”
Surprisingly, Betts’ career postseason numbers aren’t great.
In 21 playoff games with the Red Sox from 2016 through 2018, he hit .227 with an on-base-plus-slugging of .654. His lone home run was the World Series blast against Kershaw. And even with eight extra-base hits, he collected just four RBIs.
But his ability to influence playoff games, to provide critical contributions in October’s biggest moments, to shine brightest when the spotlight was turned all the way up — that’s another story.
His Red Sox career was littered with timely hits and important at-bats, especially during the 2018 championship run.
In the team’s 16-1 win over the New York Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS, Betts sparked a two-run third inning with a leadoff single and scored the first of seven fourth-inning runs with a bases-loaded walk.
After the Red Sox lost Game 1 of the ensuing ALCS against the Houston Astros, Betts began their Game 2 win with a leadoff double in a two-run first inning. He scored again in the seventh after drawing a leadoff walk and advancing all the way to the plate on a wild pitch and two passed balls. In the eighth, he doubled home an insurance run. Fenway Park chanted “MVP!” every time he came to the plate.
“He ignited them from the very beginning of the game,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said after the game. “The energy of this place when he comes to bat is really electrifying. From the first at-bat on, he set the tone.”
During the Red Sox's three-run fifth inning in Game 2 of the World Series, it was Betts' two-out single against Hyun-Jin Ryu that influenced Roberts' decision to summon Ryan Madson from the bullpen — a fateful move that resulted in the reliever surrendering a tying bases-loaded walk, then a two-run single that put the Red Sox ahead for good.
On the latter play, Betts scored the go-ahead run to help Boston take a commanding 2-0 series lead.
“I just go out and do what I can to help the team win,” Betts said that night, in which he recorded a playoff career-high three hits and was seen postgame distributing trays of food to homeless people in front of the Boston Public Library.
“[I just] try and be consistent in having some good at-bats and getting some timely hits and whatnot.”
That’s exactly what the Dodgers are hoping Betts can provide this postseason, his first since those 2018 playoffs. In the past, the team has missed having a player like him who can consistently work counts at the top of the order and provide both speed and power in leverage situations.
“He’s in scoring position when he’s in the box,” Justin Turner said. “I think we’ve been clicking on all cylinders since they put him in that leadoff spot. The offense has been going from that day on.”
While the Dodgers have suffered from impatience at the plate in recent postseasons, Betts has struck out only 17 times in 99 career playoff plate appearances.
“When you’re talking about game-planning for Mookie, to be prepared, to have the right game plan, the right mind-set, it feeds throughout the entire offense,” Roberts said. “I just think that’s only beneficial for our club.”
Maybe this will be the year Betts, who has hit better than .217 in only one of his five postseason series, can replicate his regular season numbers in the playoffs. He is coming off another MVP-contending campaign, having hit .292 with a .927 on-base-plus-slugging and 16 home runs and 39 RBIs over a 60-game schedule.
But even if his stats decline again, he knows how to make the rest of his skill set — from the baserunning to the plate discipline to the otherworldly defense — count in the situations that matter most.
“It’s the same dynamic you guys have seen all year long,” Turner said. “He’s a table-setter. He’s a spark plug at the top of the lineup. He takes good at-bats. And he can score runs in so many ways.”