Monday, June 6, 2016

Two Days in the Life of Mookie Betts

It was late July last year or early August, when the Red Sox were long out of postseason contention and the autopsy notes were beginning to roll in, that a strange and oddly beautiful wave of optimism began to ripple through Red Sox nation. The season was lost, but the young guys were playing well. They were playing really well. They were making plays. They were winning games. They were playing better than they had the year before. If players like Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, and Mookie Betts kept improving, and the Sox figured out a few other things (Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval) and filled a few gaps, this team could be pretty good. Maybe even really good.

And then, over the course of the off-season, pre-season, and the first few weeks of the regular season, it all came together. Hanley Ramirez moved to first base where he is clearly much more comfortable. David Ortiz's announced retirement and slightly diminished work load has re-energized his bat. Dustin Pedroia is healthy again. The Sandoval problem kind of worked itself out. Acquiring Kimbrel allowed the Sox to get another year out of Koji as a set up man. And Stephen Wright was able to hold the rotation together while Joe Kelly and Edwardo Rodriguez got healthy, David Price worked out a problem with his mechanics, and Clay Bucholz finally, finally, finally proved his does not have a spot on the rotation. (The pitching is still obviously the weak spot, but it's not so weak to keep the Sox out of playoff position.) Even moving Swihart to left field seems to have worked out.

And those young guys who seemed to be making progress suddenly became three of the best baseball players in the world. You could pick nearly any game in the last month and a half and odds are JBJ, Bogaerts and/or Betts did something remarkable, but, even with the Bogaerts leading the world in batting and JBJ's hitting streak, Mookie Betts on the last day in May and the first day of June was special.

Lead-off hitters are supposed to excel at a couple of very specific skills; get on base any way they can, see a lot of pitches to drive up the pitch count, and get into scoring position in a wide range of scenarios. In some ways, perhaps the most important skill for a lead-off hitter is the ability and aptitude to go from first to third on a single. Which means lead-off hitters tend to be faster and smaller than anybody else in the line-up and certainly smaller than the power hitters in the third, clean-up, and fifth spots. At 5'9”, 180lbs. with great speed, Mookie Betts fits that physique to a T. And thanks to good old fashioned physics with its force and mass and acceleration and whatnot, that physique is not the best for power hitters, who tend to look like David Ortiz (“husky” as one might say), Alex Rodriguez (linebackeresque), or Ken Griffey Jr., (tall and lanky). In short, lead off hitters aren't selected to hit for power.

So, it was something of anomaly when Betts absolutely crushed his lead-off home run on May 31, 2016. And it was downright weird that Betts crushed another home run in his second at bat in the following inning. Multiple-home-run games are uncommon, but not that uncommon, but two home runs in a row out of the lead-off spot is. By the second inning, Betts already had a remarkable game. But remarkable turned to historic when he hit his third home run.

No lead-off hitter for the Red Sox has ever hit three home runs in a game. The Red Sox were founded in 1901. Let that sink in for a moment. In the 115 year history of the team, on which played some of the greatest players in the history of the game, no one had ever done what Mookie Betts did on May 31, 2016. But what was even more impressive about the third home run is, by then, the Orioles had caught on that Betts can hit inside pitches. So they were pitching him outside. His third home run was an excellent pitch to the high outside corner, a difficult pitch to hit with power for even the bruisers in the middle of the line up and Mookie Betts crushed it too. And he wasn't done.

The game was pretty much decided when a fly ball was hit off Robbie Ross, Jr. (the Robbie Rossest Robbie Ross that ever Robbie Rossed a Robbie Ross) into shallow right center field. The camera follows the ball, leaving Betts out of the frame for a moment. With Dustin Pedroia and Chris Young running after it, it looks certain to be a bloop single. Then Betts re-enters the frame. It looks like he's about a mile away from the where the ball is going, but then that mile is gone in a blink and Betts is Superman sliding. Already flat on the ground, he catches the ball and slides right between Pedroia and Young. Lead-off hitters don't hit for that kind of power and right fielders don't make that kind of catch. It left Jerry Remy, who's only job is to talk about baseball, speechless. You could make an argument that Mookie Betts put on one of the greatest single-game performances in baseball history on May 31, 2016. But he wasn't done.

He lead off the very next game with a home run. And then, because a few minds hadn't yet disintegrated under the splendor of his performance, he hit another home run in his second at bat. No player, in the history of baseball, had ever lead off with a home run in each of the first two innings two games in a row. But if it was the catch that propelled his May 31st performance into the stratosphere, his second home run made his June 1 the stuff of legend.

In some ways I don't blame, Wright, the opposing pitcher for trying to do something, anything, to make sure Betts didn't hit another home run. I am 100% certain his manager or coach told him to make Betts uncomfortable or perhaps “brush him off the plate a bit.” And I think that, as a professional pitcher in Major League Baseball, there was almost no chance for an actual injury to Betts. But in the moment all I thought was, “That fucking asshole just threw at Mookie's head.” If it is possible to joyfully brandish the dancing double-bird at someone, I joyfully brandished the dancing double-bird at the Wright when the camera cut to him as Betts was rounding the bases.

It's one thing to hit three home runs in a game. It's another to hit three home runs in a game out of the lead off spot. It's another to hit three home runs in a game out of the lead off spot and make a breathtakingly graceful catch. It's another thing to hit three home runs in a game out of the lead off spot, make a breathtakingly graceful catch and hit another lead off home run the next day. Mookie Betts and the Red Sox came back to Earth relatively quickly from this little streak of magic. The weaknesses in the pitching staff showed themselves again with Bucholtz being moved to the bullpen, Kelley apparently in need of a few more rehab starts and Rodriguez oddly shaky in his first start back.

But it's another thing entirely to hit three home runs in a game out of the lead off spot, make a breathtakingly graceful catch, lead off the next day with a home run, and then crush your second home run in as many at bats after the pitcher threw one at your head. At the end of May and the beginning of June, Mookie Betts put on one of the greatest baseball performances we are likely to see.

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