ARLINGTON — Nine innings from the extinction of their season, the Los Angeles Dodgers were on the verge of going home without getting much of anything from their transcendent player, Mookie Betts. The Atlanta Braves had made Mookie moot by, of all things, attacking him with fastballs.
The man with the fastest hands in baseball had seen 29 fastballs in the zone and done next to nothing with them: two singles. His spray chart against those pitches was defaced with too many pop-ups and fly balls to the right side.
After Betts took batting practice before National League Championship Series Game 5, I asked him if the Braves had surprised him with the way they pitched him.
“No, that’s not it,” he said. “I just can’t hit. I have hit a few balls hard. It’s like a shooter in basketball. You have a streak when your jump shot is going in and out and just off the edge of the rim. You only need to see one go in. And then you’re ready for a run. That’s kind of where I am right now.”
Look out, Atlanta. Betts and the Dodgers think the run has arrived. The team that needs to reel off three straight wins facing elimination got one, 7–3, on a night that in hoop parlance was nothing but net. Down 2–0, Los Angeles blew the doors off the Braves with seven unanswered runs, three of them coming on a pair of homers by Corey Seager, who is so frighteningly locked in that manager Dave Roberts spoke the truth when he said, “For me right now there’s no better player.”
Will Smith the Younger hit an enormous three-run homer off the Will Smith the Elder, as the Dodgers are proving right the prediction of Seager that the more the Dodgers see the Atlanta pitchers the more likely they are to punish them.
Los Angeles relievers Blake Treinen, Brusdar Graterol and Kenley Jansen, throwing 91-93 mph cutters with conviction for the first time in at least a month, all threw well, giving Roberts more confidence in his choices.
But nobody made a bigger game-changing play, or means more to the mental welfare of the Dodgers, than Betts. His exquisite skill and baseball IQ were showcased on what was one of the finest postseason outfield double plays in recent memory.
“We’ve had a lot of great plays this year,” Roberts said. “But if you’re talking about momentum shifts, that’s the play of the year for me.”
The Braves already led 3–0 in the third inning while A.J. Minter, in the footsteps of Bryse Wilson, was writing another chapter in the encyclopedia of most unlikely postseason legends. His last start was for Texas A&M vs. Nebraska. No matter, the 27-year-old lefty whiffed seven of the 10 batters he faced. In just three innings, he joined Marco Gonzales as the only pitchers this year to punch out seven Dodgers in a game without a walk.
Everything was going Atlanta’s way, including a rally in that third inning against Joe Kelly that saw runners get to second and third with one out.
And then Mookie happened.
Dansby Swanson carved a topspin low fly ball into right field. In this ocean of an outfield at Globe Life Field, Betts began sprinting in for it.
As the runner at third, Marcell Ozuna needed to make one of two choices: commit to the ball being caught and remain on the bag with the possibility of tagging, or commit to the conclusion that tagging up on a ball hit in front of Betts was futile, so drift off the bag a few paces and read the ball to decide whether to go home or back to the base. Ozuna did neither. He was caught in between. First, he was in tag mode. Then he was in read mode.
What Betts did next was extraordinary, something that would go unnoticed by most fans but charmed baseball aficionados like Toscanini at Carnegie.
“I knew I had to stay on my feet because he was tagging,” Betts said.
Most outfielders trying to catch a ball of that trajectory leave their feet to get their eyes closer the baseball. It also makes the physical effort easier to dive or slide. If you want to understand the difficulty of such a maneuver, while running in a full sprint suddenly bend down, touch the ground and straighten up—all without breaking stride. Just have a cardiologist and orthopedist standing by.
The consequences riding on the outcome of the attempt were enormous. If Betts missed the ball—or worse, the likely possibility that it went under his glove and to the wall the next county over—the score is 4–0, Swanson is at third with one out and Roberts pulls Kelly for Treinen.
Betts somehow reached down with his glove while in full sprint, caught the baseball with no room to spare before it bounced, kept his balance, righted himself and fired the baseball toward home. It was the baseball multitasking equivalent of juggling chainsaws while riding a unicycle on a tightrope.
The vacillating Ozuna took off for home. There was one problem: his in-between state left him a hop or two off the bag when he decided to run. Originally, he was ruled safe at home and the score was 3–0. But replay confirmed the obvious: he was nowhere near the bag to tag up when Betts made the shoestring catch. The run literally came off the board.
Don’t fault Ozuna too much. It was a difficult read. The poor guy simply got Mookie-ized.
The winds of the game, if not the series, shifted right there. The next batter after the delayed double play was Seager, who homered upon seeing Tyler Matzek for the third time in the series. The Dodgers were off and running. The transformation from virtually being down 4–0 facing elimination to a rainbows-and-cotton-candy 7–3 victory began with Betts.
“I just thought there was no way he was going to make that play,” Roberts said. “He’s kind of the straw that stirs us. You can see when Mookie gets on base our team kind of follows.”
Betts also beat out an infield hit, stole a base, scored a run and knocked in a run with one of the more important swings of the night that went largely unnoticed.
With a runner at second in the seventh, Betts took a 94-mph fastball from Jacob Webb and whistled it into left field for his RBI single. It did not change the game the way his catch did, but Betts smiled when he was asked about that swing. It was the first time all series that Betts turned on a fastball and squared it up for a hit.
“That,” Betts said, “was the one I was waiting for. The infield hit was the one through the hoop I was looking for. That swing felt good. Real good.”
The Dodgers are alive. Betts is revived. Seager is a monster. Walker Buehler gets the ball for Game 6. Nice, but all it means nothing unless they beat Atlanta starters Max Fried and Ian Anderson in back-to-back games. The Braves are 6-0 when they take the ball this postseason. It sounds like the perfect setup for Mookie to happen.