A calm, objective look at the Mookie Monster

Mookie Betts about to take a low-five from third base coach Dino Ebel after his sixth-inning Game One bomb.

The Mookie Monster is catching more than a few waves of adulation and hype lately. Making three National League Championship Series-altering or sustaining catches in the final three games, then doing something even Babe Ruth never achieved in a single World Series game, does that for you.

“He does things on a baseball field that not many people can do,” says Game One winning pitcher Clayton Kershaw, “and he does it very consistently, which I think separates him from other guys.”

On Tuesday  night, Betts let a couple of other Dodgers take the defensive spotlight gladly in return for drawing one walk, stealing two bases, and hitting a home run. Ruth drew three walks, off one of which he stole second and third, in Game Two of the 1921 World Series.

This Series is only one game old, and Betts hit as many home runs Tuesday night as Ruth hit in the entire ’21 Series—one. No, we’re not comparing Mookie Betts to Babe Ruth just yet, other than to say he has something else in common with the Bambino.

Betts, too, is a former Boston Red Sox star. Betts was traded away while Red Sox Nation was still seeing him in prime time; Ruth was sold before Red Sox fans got to see his complete transition to full-time position playing and his two prime periods—in a very different game—of 1920-24 and 1926-31. And Red Sox Nation isn’t the only baseball outpost still wondering just what the Red Sox were thinking when dealing Betts.

The Ruthian mythology held for too long that then-Red Sox owner Harry Frazee dumped Ruth purely to finance his musical hit No, No, Nanette. (How a 1919 sale finances a 1925 stage production should have escaped thinking people.) Frazee did need money, but not for one of his theatrical productions. He also didn’t need the headaches that came with Ruth, behaving even then like a law unto himself.

Fast forward a century. A very different Red Sox ownership is about as financially challenged as the Saudi royal family. They’re facing Betts hitting free agency after the 2020 season and making little apparent effort to sign him. Betts himself spoke often enough about pondering his market value in that 2020 free agency class. The Red Sox didn’t want to lose him for nothing in return.

Fair enough. But why the Red Sox made no effort to keep their arguable franchise face will be debated at least as long as the old and discredited Curse of the Bambino endured. No matter what the Red Sox didn’t do otherwise last winter to keep the team from collapsing to the basement even in a pandemic-altered year, the Olde Towne Team isn’t likely to go even half as long before its next World Series triumph as they did between selling Ruth and 2004.

“The Red Sox’s payroll issues were not inconsequential,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, never mind that allowing that the Red Sox doing nothing to re-tool their pitching staff probably did as much to sink them as trading Betts. “The team needed to infuse young talent. But every rational argument club officials make pales in comparison to the importance of keeping a homegrown star, a franchise player, a role model for your organization and a potential Hall of Famer.”

Their loss is the Dodgers’ gain, even if the Red Sox did get some decent young talent in return and rid themselves, while they were at it, of the rest of David Price’s contract before Price’s decline added further miseries. Betts already had a taste of World Series conquest in 2018, even though he didn’t hit well at all while playing solid defense that postseason.

“He does all the little things right,” said Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger to Rosenthal, Bellinger having delivered a couple of key postseason hits and defensive gems himself. “You can really learn from that when a guy’s that good and wants to win and continues to do the small things that go unnoticed by a lot of people. It’s really special.”

The guy Betts is being compared to most now hasn’t even gotten more than one quick postseason taste in his rookie season. The Los Angeles Angels aren’t exactly in the poorhouse financially. They’re in the poorhouse in baseball terms, though, since they seem almost terminally unable to build a team their franchise player and the game’s best all around, still, can be proud of.

Once the Mookie Monster cranked his act into overdrive starting in NLCS Game Five, the concurrent subject became Mike Trout, his lack of postseason credentials, and even why Trout is therefore an overrated hype. The foolishness there only begins with the roll of Hall of Famers who either never got to strut in the postseason, came up too short when they got several chances, but still shook out as their generations’ best.

It only continues with ignoring that Trout wasn’t responsible for such ultimately backfiring moves as the Albert Pujols contract—which became an albatross mostly because of Pujols’s injury issues impacting his once-unshakable plate discipline—and the utter failure to develop credible pitching on both ends of the game. That may or may not have only begun with doing little to nothing to keep Zack Greinke beyond his second-half 2012 rental.

Trout’s loyalty to the organisation that brought him forward is nothing but admirable in a business for which loyalty is and has always been a disposable commodity. The only difference between pre- and post-free agency “loyalty” is that pre-free agency teams were under no such obligation and liberal to the point of libertine when it came to “loyalty” to most of their players.

A guy doesn’t sign an extension equivalent to the economy of a small country if he thinks he’s been done dirty off the field. Even nice-guy Trout has his limits, though. He said not too subtly this year that he’s tired of the Angels losing. But when the game’s all-universe player says he’s fed up with falling short and shorter, will the Angels listen at last?

The show Betts is putting on this postseason is as staggering as the 99 Cent Store-budget Tampa Bay Rays bumping, grinding, flying, and diving their way to the American League’s best irregular season record and into the World Series in the first place. But if Betts’s partisans really want to go there with the Trout comparisons, well, you asked for it.

Betts has seven seasons in the Show. Here they are next to Trout’s first seven. First, looking conventionally:

First Seven Seasons BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
Mookie Betts .301 .373 .522 .895 135
Mike Trout .310 .420 .579 1.000 178

Well, I tried to warn you. And, in absolute fairness, Betts’s line is astonishing for a leadoff hitter, which I’ll take a different crack at shortly.

Now—sorry, can’t resist—look at the pair using my Real Batting Average metric, which I think gives you the complete look at a player at the plate. (It also does what the traditional batting average fails to do: treats hits as they should be treated, not treating all hits as having equal value—which they don’t.) Total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances:

Real Batting Average PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mookie Betts 3875 1786 395 26 33 21 .583
Mike Trout 2012-2018 4538 2171 684 86 43 63 .671

Again, Betts has a remarkable profile for a leadoff hitter. But granted that distinction versus a guy who bats second much of the time and third almost as much of the time, the Mookie Monster isn’t quite the Millville Meteor just yet. (Since you went there: Betts does have a Most Valuable Player award—to Trout’s three that should have been four.)

On the other hand, it might be a lot more prudent and accurate to compare Betts to the first seven seasons of another leadoff man of certain renown.

Real Batting Average PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mookie Betts 3875 1786 395 26 33 21 .583
Renowned Leadoff Man 4445 1639 674 24 20 23 .535

The leadoff man of certain renown is Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson. Did you figure for even one milli-second that there but for the grace of his life of crime on the bases would Henderson come up short of Betts? That the Mookie Monster in his first seven seasons is actually better at the plate than the Man of Steal?

Maybe you didn’t before, but you ought to now. Especially since Betts has a slightly better knowledge than Henderson of what to do when his bat takes unexpected time off and becomes a one-man version of the Rays’ collection of aerialists, acrobats, high-wire walkers, and tumblers.

It’s enough to make the Dodgers’ spanking new $396 million man the biggest bargain of the year. Just don’t ask Betts. All he’s ready to do is tell you the most important thing he did in Game One, and it wasn’t the jolt he hit the other way that landed in the right field seats in the bottom of the sixth. For him, it was the double steal that led to him scoring on an offline throw from first base an inning earlier.

“I think it just kept the line moving,” he told reporters. “It was a good play there, and I’ve gotta give credit to the hitters that came up after for driving in runs and keeping constant pressure. It just showed that we don’t have to hit home runs to be successful.”

Not even when it’s the aggregation that led the National League in bombs this irregular season and last full season. It ought to make for one hell of a World Series show going forward.

The Rays off script, the Dodgers on top

Clayton Kershaw opened the 2020 World Series with more than a flourish.

Somehow, no matter what the pandemic threw down in baseball’s way, we managed to arrive at the World Series. Somehow, the game’s 99 Cent Store from Tampa Bay bumped, pole vaulted, and sky dove to a Series against the game’s Amazon from Los Angeles.

In Globe Life Field, the brand-new playpen of the Texas Rangers. Where the turf is artificial, the roof makes it resemble the hangar for a Boeing 747, and you can just can all the hoo-ha about the wonders of a neutral-site World Series.

The Dodgers entered with a sort-of home field advantage.They’ve been playing at Globe Life from their National League division series forward. With the pandemic-inspired divisional geography schedule on the irregular season, the Rays never got to play the Rangers even once.

They’ve been been playing there from their division series forward. With the pandemic-inspired divisional geography schedule this irregular season, the Rays never got to play the Rangers even once. And the Dodgers sure took advantage of that inadvertent home-field advantage of a sort Tuesday night.

They waited out a hard labouring Rays starter Tyler Glasnow, aided and abetted by Rays manager Kevin Cash forgetting his well-tested plot, then flipped their merry-go-round to cruising speed from the fourth through the sixth innings, and beat the Rays in Game One, 8-3.

Clayton Kershaw did more than his share starting for the Dodgers. With the continuing questions about his overall postseason life of bad fortune, Kershaw brought the best of his new self to bear, his sliders out-numbering his fastballs, striking out eight through six and getting nineteen misses on 38 swings against him for the highest single-game whiff rate of his entire major league life.

“Kershaw was dealing,” Cash said postgame. “You see why he’s going to the Hall of Fame one day.”

What nobody could see clearly was why Cash pushed his luck with Glasnow labouring to survive, his eight strikeouts negated by six walks—including the leadoff pass to Max Muncy opening the bottom of the fourth to start the Dodgers’ fun—and with only a 2-1 deficit against him when he came out of it.

Will Smith grounded Muncy to second almost right then and there. But Cody Bellinger—the man who rang the Atlanta Braves bell so resoundingly in the seventh National League Championship Series game—hit the first pitch into the Dodger bullpen in right center field. After walking Chris Taylor to follow and wild-pitching Taylor to second, Glasnow was lucky to escape with his and the Rays’ lives on a pair of back-to-back strikeouts.

That’s where Cash moved against his own successfully established grain. The Rays live and prosper on not letting the other guys get third cracks at their pitchers and thus keeping their pitchers from falling into position to fail or get failed. They play that game better than most and rolled the American League’s best irregular season record for their trouble.

Cash withstood the alarms blasted after he lifted Charlie Morton in American League Championship Series Game Seven after five and two-thirds efficient innings when trouble brewed with the Rays up 3-0. The move aligned perfectly to the Rays’ usual M.O. and it paid off with a pennant.

On Tuesday night, though, he left Glasnow in for the fifth despite 107 pitches to that point. With Ryan Yarbrough throwing in the Rays bullpen, Glasnow walked Mookie Betts on four straight balls following an opening strike. Over the past three seasons including a 34-start span, Glasnow had only thrown 100 pitches or more in a game three times, and Tuesday night wasn’t exactly one of his prime outings.

Cash still didn’t make a move after the walk to Betts. Room enough for the Dodgers to boot the merry-go-round. Glasnow walked Corey Seager after Betts stole second without a throw on a low pitch. He struck Justin Turner out, somehow—except that Betts and Seager delivered a near-textbook double steal.

Then Max Muncy bounced one right to Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz. Diaz threw home. This was supposed to be one of those plays the Rays’ usually larger-than-life defense executes with an arm missing and half asleep. Except that Diaz’s throw arrived up the third base line and Betts slid into the plate while Seager took third and Muncy stood safe at first.

“The at-bat with Muncy right there,” Cash said post-game, “just was hoping it felt like [Glasnow] was the best guy to get a strikeout.” Not on a night when only 58 of Glasnow’s 117 total pitches were strikes. Glasnow himself acknowledged trying to rush things a little too much in the beginning, but once he adjusted that he thought his mechanics were off.

“I have to execute pitches better and hold runners better,” he said, admitting the latter is probably his weakest attribute. “Later in the game, I wasn’t really able to throw anything for a strike except the heater. I think the changeup, I probably should have thrown that a little bit more . . . That curve ball, later on, I really didn’t have much feel for it.”

Smith knocked Seager home and Muncy to third with a jam-shot single to center. Finally Cash brought in Yarbrough, a good relief pitcher but a young man whose career to date includes that he’s vulnerable pitching with one out and rare (for him) inherited runners but better when he starts an inning clean.

The lefthander got rid of the lefthanded Bellinger on a pop up to third, but righthanded Chris Taylor lined Muncy home with a clean single to left and pinch-hitter Enrique Hernandez sent Smith home by shooting a base hit between short and third.

Yarbrough escaped with no further damage. Cash sent Josh Fleming out for the sixth. The Mookie Monster sent his first pitch into the right field seats. An infield pop out later, Turner and Muncy doubled back-to-back. Fleming didn’t surrender another run through his next two innings worth of work but that came under the too-familiar heading of taking one for the team.

Not that the Rays left things uninteresting on their end. They chased Kershaw’s relief Dylan Floro with one out in the seventh. Manuel Margot singled right through the middle infielders and Joey Wendle drove on to left center that Bellinger gave a great chase until the ball hit off the heel of his glove, setting the Rays up with second and third.

Then Cash sent Ji-Man Choi to bat for Willy Adames. Dodger manager Dave Roberts brought in lefthander Victor Gonzalez to face the lefthanded Choi. Cash pulled Choi for division series hero Mike Brosseau. And Brosseau lined Margot home with a single to right with Wendle stopping at third. He didn’t stay long. Kevin Kiermaier—whose fifth-inning solo home run was his first hit since being hit by a pitch in ALCS Game Three—lined a single to right to send Wendle home.

It was the final Rays homecoming of the night, but it almost wasn’t. Rays catcher Mike Zunino lined a missile right through the box that Gonzalez snatched just sticking his glove to his right, the ball’s force spinning him right into position to throw and double up Brosseau scrambling back to second. A hair off line or the glove missing by a hair and that missile might have been an RBI single with the Rays still swinging. Might.

The Rays tried to flip their own merry-go-round switch and the Dodgers succeeded in throwing a stick into the motor belt, with Pedro Baez and Joe Kelly finishing up throwing the spotless final two innings.

It was also a night to make history. Kershaw nailed his 201st lifetime postseason strikeout, moving him into second place behind his fellow likely Hall of Famer-to-be Justin Verlander. Betts became the first player in World Series history to homer, steal, and score twice in the same Series game. Cash became the first Little League World Series player to manage in the World Series when he grew up.

“It’s great to get the Series going with a win,” said Kershaw to reporters after the game. “That’s the biggest thing, for us, is to get going. Get that first game—it’s always important to get that first game of a series. Just for me, personally, it’s awesome, you get to pitch well and get a win in a World Series. Like I said, I’m just thankful for another opportunity.”

Bellinger going deep looked like a man who shook off the shoulder dislocation his NLCS bombing brought when it happened during the dugout celebration. He took no chances this time.”I said it before the game,” he told reporters post-game. “If I hit one today, I’m not touching anyone’s arm. I’m going straight foot.”

Since he hit the first Dodger bomb of the Series, Bellinger got to lead the first such dance. Appropriately. And you thought last year’s World Series champion Dancing Nationals knew how to bust moves and cut rugs.

Ask not for whom the Bellinger tolls

You call that a bat flip??

If Cody Bellinger’s going to be the long distance October hero, he’s going to have to work on those bat flips. The billiards cue-like toss he offered up in the bottom of the seventh Sunday night would get him laughed out of the parlours of our Jose Bautistas and Willson Contrerases.

Hit what proves to be the pennant-winning home run in the bottom of the seventh? C’mon, bro, don’t hold back. Give us the real deal. Give us that flip that needs a meal and a stewardess on board. Show Contreras his upper deck-high flip was just a little ring toss by comparison. Trust us, Cody, it won’t hurt.

Especially not after Mookie Betts, who thought nothing of breaking into the happy dance after scaling back-turned up the right field wall to snatch a possible triple from Marcell Ozuna Saturday, forgot to bust a move or ten after he flat robbed Freddie Freeman of a home run with another running, back-scaling, up-the-wall catch in the fifth Sunday night.

It wouldn’t have hurt, annoyed, angered, or outraged anyone any deeper than the Atlanta Braves wounded themselves when they TOOTBLANned* their way out of a fourth-inning rally that might have put them beyond the Los Angeles Dodgers’ reach in National League Championship Series Game Seven.

Bellinger’s eighth-pitch drive into the right field seats off Atlanta reliever Chris Martin was at least as dramatic as the seventh-inning blast he launched in Game Seven of the 2018 NLCS. It won’t supplant Kirk Gibson’s legless Game One-winning launch in the 1988 World Series. Bellinger has an entire World Series to come to show he has that kind of drama in him.

Nobody would put it past him. Yet. He picked the perfect moment to shake off a season during which he waged war with his own plate mechanics and an NLCS during which it looked like he’d spend his entire time running into the same kind of hard outs that drove Houston’s Alex Bregman out of his gourd in the American League Championship Series.

Be very afraid, Tampa Bay Rays. These Dodgers have a few boppers to match your own Randy Arozarena. They hit a staggering sixteen home runs as a team in the entire NLCS. That’s as many as some teams hit in an entire month.

Bellinger was preceded by Enrique Hernandez, pinch hitting for Joc Pederson to lead off the bottom of the sixth, against A.J. Minter, the rookie Brave who opened so magnificently in Game Five (striking out seven of nine batters). Hernandez worked Minter to an eighth pitch and sent it over the left center field fence to tie Game Seven at six.

You Rays may also need all of your band of defensive aerialists, acrobats, high-wire walkers, and human cannonballs to counteract one all-in-one Betts. The Dodgers can slap and flap the leather with the best in the business, but they’re not exactly the Flying Wallendas or even the 1969 Mets. Except for the guy wearing number 50 patrolling right field.

Who will offer absolution to the left side of the Braves infield that got themselves caught on the wrong side of a two-for-the-price-of-one baserunning mishap that may have been Sunday night’s true game-turner?

If it comforts Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley any, their fraternal flop didn’t exactly put paid to this NLCS the way Babe Ruth’s beyond-insane, out-by-five-miles stolen base attempt ended the 1926 World Series in the St. Louis Cardinals’ favour. Close enough but not quite the coffin nailer enough will try to secure it.

Swanson and Riley are the guys you really feel for after the Dodgers’ nerve-exposing 4-3 win. They picked the absolute wrong night to become two Lonnie Smiths for the price of one. No, I rescind that, right here and now.

In that 1991 World Series, inside the Richter-scale-busting racket of the old, gone, distinctly unlamented Metrodome, Smith got fooled just long enough by Minnesota Twins keystone Chuck Knoblauch and Greg Gagne, catching Smith’s sight running from first and performing a pantomime double play . . . when Terry Pendleton ripped a rocket into the left center field gap that should have sent Smith home with a scoreless tie-breaking Game Seven run.

Corey Seager pronounces Austin Riley and the Braves’ fourth-inning rally DOA.

Unfortunately for Swanson, Riley, and the Braves, the Dodgers weren’t trying any trickery Sunday night. They were down 3-2 in the fourth and trying merely to hang in and find a way to revive and prosper. They weren’t even expecting Swanson and Riley to be on second and third in the first place.

They got there because Dodger reliever Blake Treinen—in to clean up a small mess left behind by Tony Gonsolin that resulted in the third Braves run—wild pitched them from their original first and second stations. And they’d gotten those courtesy of Gonsolin serving Ozzie Albies an RBI single.

Now Treinen got Braves left fielder Nick Markakis to ground one to Dodger third baseman Justin Turner playing well enough down the line. Turner fired home and caught Swanson dead about six feet from the plate. Catcher Will Smith threw back to Turner, who took a flying leap like Superman taking off in flight to tag Swanson—with Riley, perhaps insanely, trying for third anyway after initial hesitation.

The problem was Dodger shortstop Corey Seager backing up the Swanson rundown. Trying to take the base under guard that heavy might get you points for chutzpah but DOA otherwise. As Riley was when he got tagged and bagged. As the Braves were from that point forward.

“It was huge,” lamented Braves manager Brian Snitker post-game. “It’s hard to score runs in the postseason. The infield’s back so you see the ball up the middle. That’s where normally we’re a really good baserunning team. We just did the fundamental things wrong.”

How can you say the Braves died with a 3-2 lead? Center fielder Cristian Pache grounded out to shortstop to finish killing that fourth-inning rally. Then Dodger relievers Treinen in the fifth, Brusdar Graterol in the sixth, and Julio Urias in the seventh through ninth kept the Braves to one lonely baserunner (a sixth-inning walk to Albies) the rest of the game.

The Braves will too often note and too long remember that they slapped an early 3-0 lead out of Dodgers opener Dustin May and then Gonsolin. They’ll remember May walking Ronald Acuna, Jr. and Freeman on eight consecutive pitches and Marcell Ozuna singling Acuna home in the top of the first. They’ll remember Swanson greeting Gonsolin rudely by hitting a 1-1 pitch over the left field fence leading off the second.

But they’ll also remember the Dodgers solving starter Ian Anderson’s changeup early enough to lay off it and start hitting some hard balls around, just biding their time until they could pry through. They’ll remember Smith hitting Anderson’s inside curve ball for a two-run single in the third. They’ll never forget Hernandez and Bellinger ringing the bells.

“It’s just the mentality we have,” Seager said postgame. “Show up that day, win that day. This team does a very good job being in the moment. You gotta stay in that moment, be in the moment and let the chips fall where they may. Right now, they’re falling our way.”

Entering Game Seven the Braves scored one less run all irregular year long than the Dodgers scored. Exiting Game Seven and the postseason they still ended up scoring one less run overall—but six less in the NLCS. They may remember trading Game Three and Four blowouts and reaping the sweet fruits of Bryse Wilson shaking off an irregular season’s 4.02 ERA to pitch like a Hall of Famer starting Game Four.

They may also remember they’ve been pushed out of postseasons with far heavier blows than they took Sunday night. But they might also want to remember that they shook off that nasty 13-1 blowout by the Cardinals in last year’s division series to take a second consecutive possession of first place in the National League East, no matter how bizarrely truncated 2020 was.

The Braves will be back. Count on it. They may even have forged the beginnings of a beautiful postseason rivalry with the ogres from the National League West. It’ll just have to keep until next season. Sure it would have been lovely to see the Braves tangle with the Rays in the World Series. Southeast rising.

But won’t it be a little more fun to think that the Tampa Bay Davids might have a shot at taking down the Los Angeles Goliaths? With or without these Dodgers’ recent snakebitten history, that ought to be fun, fun, fun—until or unless Daddy takes the slingshot away.

——————————————————————————

* TOOTBLAN—Thrown out on the bases like a nincompoop. Invented originally for former Chicago Cubs infielder Ryan Theriot, whose baserunning skills were described politely as less than average.

All Betts were on

Betts in the happy dance after his fifth-inning aerobatics.

Max Fried watched Justin Turner’s first-inning launch leave the yard Saturday. He looked for all the world like a man who’d come home to find his house cleaned out by burglars. With no idea how the hell they got past the gates, vault doors, barred windows, and armed guards. Or where they found the stones to return to the scene of the crime laughing.

Turner launched exactly three pitches after Corey Seager hit a 1-0 service over the right field corner fence. On a Saturday afternoon during which Los Angeles Dodgers starter Walker Buehler found his best side when the Dodgers needed it in the worst way possible, all that was the next-to-last thing Fried and his Atlanta Braves needed when they were one win from the World Series.

The last thing they needed, of course, was the Dodgers winning National League Championship Series Game Six, 3-1, and with maybe the key Dodger aid being That Catch in the top of the fifth.

If you thought Fried looked shocked in the first, don’t ask how he looked after Mookie Betts—who’d just cut Freddie Freeman’s two-liner to right center off to stop it from becoming extra bases—ran back on Marcell Ozuna’s deep drive, leaped with his back turning against the high Globe Life Park fence, and one-handed it before it might have struck either the yellow line or a hair’s width beneath it.

There wasn’t a soul on earth who blamed Betts for the berserk happy dance into which he broke from the split second his feet returned to the ground. He saved a certain run and probably signed the Braves’ Game Six death warrant while he was at it. Not to mention provoking a hyperbolic outcry from a longtime stalwart of Red Sox Nation.

Hey LA!” tweeted self-described Boston Globe sports columnist emeritus Bob Ryan. “See that catch? You’d better damn well treasure Mookie. Worst mistake we made since selling The Babe to the Yankees.” Referring, of course, to the platinum-rich Red Sox refusing to even think about handing Betts what the Dodgers eventually did after they landed him in last winter’s blockbuster trade.

The catch will cling tighter to the memory if the Dodgers manage to win Game Seven on Sunday. At that, they’ll call it the one that turned the whole NLCS around and not just the one that signed, sealed, and delivered the Braves’ Game Six fate. They’re certainly calling it the one that makes Betts’s Game Five catch—the running shoestringer off Ozuna that turned into an inning-ending double play off Ozuna’s early-tag baserunning mistake—resemble a measly warmup.

In a pandemically-rearranged postseason loaded with fielding shows, including but not limited to the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays’ acrobatic aerialists, Betts blew all of those into near-oblivion. Even Manuel Margot’s pole-vaulting catch in Game Two of the ALCS.  “That’s an unbelievable play by an unbelievable player in a big moment,” Seager said post-Game Six.

“A tick behind last night’s play, but it just shows the athleticism,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “Right there, Walker was kind of stressing a little bit. And so to make that play to get out of it . . . was huge. [Betts] just impacts the game in so many ways.”

Second understatement of the day about the play. Since becoming a full-time right fielder in 2016, Betts had 104 defensive runs saved at that position. That’s only ten times any other right fielder in the entire game.

“I didn’t know he’d got it that good,” Betts told MLB Network’s in a field interview. “I just kind of kept going and, you know, I got to the wall, I could have got to the point of no return, I got to jump and go for a catch and come down with it. ”

Buehler wasn’t the only Dodger finding and delivering his best side in National League Championship Series Game Six. Oft-maligned manager Roberts didn’t suffer a single brain vapour. His oft-maligned bullpen—which seems to trigger “Danger, Will Robinson” warnings the minute Roberts reaches for it this postseason—didn’t waver, never mind melt.

Even embattled closer Kenley Jansen, whose issues really are bound more to his physical changes than his mind or his repertoire, got two outs on two pitches to open the ninth before needing four pitches to put pinch-hitter Pablo Sandoval and the 3-1 Dodger win into the safe deposit box. It was as though the Braves made the once-powerful Sandoval a sacrificial lamb just to be done to play one more day.

You’re going to face the best hitters in the world and you can’t lose confidence,” said Jansen, who ended the game at the expense of a Kung Fu Panda who’s not even close to the younger teddy bear who homered three times in the first game of the 2012 World Series. “If you’re going to lose confidence then just quit.”

Saturday’s play began with the distinct possibility of both pennants being taken on the same day. It ended with the Dodgers living to play a Game Seven, the Braves frustrated that they’d have to play a Game Seven, and the Rays finally finishing what they started and sending the Houston Astros home for the winter.

NLCS Game Six also left the Dodgers 32-8 for the year in games where they scored first and the Braves 11-20 when the other guys score first. It also left Buehler—who stood with his right arm extended up and his hand in a fist saluting Betts’s hair-raising catch—the proud owner of a lifetime 18-0 won-lost record in games where he’s staked to a 3-0 lead.

The only reason Roberts lifted Buehler after six was the righthander beginning to tire after scattering seven hits and striking out six without walking a single Brave. After Betts saved the bacon of Buehler, the Dodgers, and every Dodger fan in creation, Blake Treinen coming in for the seventh saved his own hide after a leadoff triple (Nick Markakis) and a one-out RBI double (Ronald Acuna, Jr.) by striking Freeman out swinging and convincing Ozuna to fly out to Betts a little less dramatically.

Fried at least kept the Braves in the game until the bottom of the seventh. He’d outlasted the Dodger starter who’d outpitched him, but his mates couldn’t find other ways to pry open a Dodger bullpen that’s known as much for keeping the crash carts on white-hot alert as for driving the opposition into the ground with its speedy sinkers and hard breakers.

Loading the bases with nobody out in the top of the second? Two strikeouts and a ground out left the ducks on the pond. Going 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position all day? Not the way to overcome that early Dodger attack, that ironed-up Dodger pitching, and that Betts taking a flying leap to end the fifth.

“When you throw a letter-high curveball to Seager, he’s going to do what he did to it,” said a humbled Fried post-game. “A fastball right down the middle to Turner, he did the same. I felt like I was searching for it, instead of going after guys and hitting spots.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker finally decided Fried did all he could with his 109 pitches and brought Darren O’Day in with two out and one on. O’Day needed shortstop Dansby Swanson to keep Will Smith’s nasty one-hopper from turning into a nastier base hit, Swanson backhanding it on the run and throwing over to second to force Turner for the side.

Fried did at least spare the Braves from dipping too deep into their own rising bullpen. They may well need it if the Dodgers find ways to puncture Game Seven starter Ian Anderson Sunday night. “We’re in a good spot,” said Snitker to reporters. “I like the guy that we’re going to pitch. The bullpen, everybody can pitch. Everybody’s available tomorrow. We’ll see what we do.”

They may have to think about having Betts kidnapped just to be on the safe side.

Symphony for shoestrings

Maestro Betts.

This time, Dave Roberts got it right. It didn’t hurt that his Los Angeles Dodgers behaved like Dodgers when they absolutely had to in National League Championship Series Game Five, either.

Meaning they ironed up when they were down in the fourth inning, with eighteen outs between them and yet another winter full of recriminations.

All it took was someone reminding them there come times for the band to break into “Symphony for Shoestrings.” Someone like Mookie Betts in the third inning.

The Atlanta Braves didn’t have a Dodger managerial lapse through which to shove a tank yet. They’d scratched their first two runs out while their youthful opening pitcher, A.J. Minter, setting precedent by making his first major league start in a postseason game, struck out seven in his three innings including the side in the third.

“I surprised myself a little bit,” Minter told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Coming into the game, I just wanted to set the tone, attack one guy at a time and not worry about pitch count. Just come out and be aggressive and get us off to a good start.”

He got them off to a very good start. What happened after he was lifted for Tyler Matzek to start the fourth wasn’t his fault. The Dodgers bumped, ground, and swung their way back to a 7-2 win while their own company of opener Dustin May and six further relievers made sure the Braves couldn’t even think of an overthrow.

Roberts managed his pitching just right all night long and neither pushed a panic button nor fell asleep at any switch. His Dodgers also ran, if you add as you should Betts’s staggering catch and double play in the third to stop a third Braves run. Just don’t ask Betts about it.

If you want him to tell you which moment changed the game in the Dodgers’ favour, it was first baseman Max Muncy hanging in to walk against Braves reliever Will Smith to set up first and second in the sixth—after Betts himself had his leadoff beat-it-out single turned into a one-out force eliminating him at second base—for Dodgers catcher Will Smith.

You read it right. Your eyes didn’t play tricks. Will Smith versus Will Smith. The first time namesakes faced each other in postseason play. The Braves’ Smith and the Dodgers’ Smith wrung their way to a full count, Smith not taking the bat off his shoulder once. Then, Dodger Smith swung on what some umps might have called ball four. And hit it about six or seven rows into the left field seats.

“Last night hurt,” Dodger Smith said post-game, referring to the late-enough Clayton Kershaw hook that opened the gates for the Atlanta tanks to barrel in. “We got back on the same page, a little motivation, I guess. We were coming out tonight hungry and ready to go.”

He didn’t deny that facing his namesake in the postseason was exciting. “I faced him once last year in the regular season,” he told MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds, “but yeah, [this] was a big swing for us.”

“He battled his ass off the whole time,” said Friday night’s two-bomb Dodger shortstop Corey Seager of his and their Smith.

“He put together a really good AB, took some really tough pitches, then put a good swing on a pitch inside and got the head to it and clipped me,” said the Braves’ Smith post-game. “Oh, well.”

“Oh, well” isn’t going to work when the two combatants square off for Game Six. The Braves still have the 3-2 NLCS lead but they’ve been reminded these Dodgers aren’t exactly pushovers just yet. Not even if the Game Six pitching match to begin will be Max Fried against Walker Buehler. The Braves won’t just take for granted that there’s yet another too-classic postseason Dodger dissipation on the horizon.

Sure the Smith smash overthrew what was then a 2-1 Braves lead for keeps, so sure it was one game changer. But Betts doesn’t give himself enough credit. He only stopped any momentum the Braves might have had left for the night three innings earlier with his legs, his glove, and his arm.

He ran in when Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson with second and third and two outs hit a soft sinking liner to shallow right and caught it on the shoestring, firing home in a bid to bag Marcell Ozuna at the plate. Ozuna slid across the plate just as the throw reached Dodger Smith—but oops! Dodger bench coach Bob Geren called for a review. He’d seen Ozuna tag a hair too soon as Swanson’s sinker hit the web of Betts’s glove.

Side retired. Inning-ending double play. “If you’re talking about momentum shifts,” Roberts said post-game, “that’s the play of the year for me. I just thought there was no way he’d make that play. He’s just kind of the straw that stirs us.”

“A big play like that, a big moment, changes everything for you,” Seager said. “You go into the dugout with some energy, you scratch some runs and the whole thing changes.”

Betts isn’t buying it. So far as he’s concerned, it’s everyone with a job to do and he’s just one of the crew. “Our backs are against the wall,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck, and we’re showing emotion and helping each other out.”

Seager didn’t waste any time leading off the bottom of the third against Matzek. He caught hold of a 2-1 fastball and drove it over the center field fence to cut that early, scratchy 2-0 Braves lead in half in the first place. Four innings later, after struggling Chris Taylor doubled with two outs and Betts promptly singled him home against Braves reliever Jacob Webb, Seager turned on the first pitch and yanked it into the right field seats.

“That guy is something else,” marveled Braves manager Brian Snitker. “He’s one of those guys who never gives an at-bat away. It’s very impressive. He’s a dangerous, impressive hitter.”

By the time youthful Braves outfielder Cristian Parche robbed Muncy blind of an eighth-inning home run, it was too little, too late for the Braves in Game Five. Even the much-maligned Dodger bullpen held fort when they absolutely had to hold it. Right down to much-embattled closer Kenley Jansen handed that four-run lead for the ninth and striking out the side to finish.

Sometimes it takes just one gig with a little extra oxygen to hit the reset button the right way. Doesn’t it?

Most eyes will be upon San Diego Saturday night, where the Tampa Bay Rays will learn once and for all whether they can hold the Houston Astros off to go to the World Series or the Astros will finish what they’ve started, becoming the Show’s second team ever to win a pennant after being down 3-0 in their LCS.

NLCS Game Six may seem like a modest afternoon opening matinee by comparison. But the Dodgers and the Braves have no intention of playing it that way.