LOS ANGELES — Mookie Betts was coming back from paternity go away, his automotive was caught in Chicago freeway gridlock for what appeared like an eternity and he arrived at Wrigley Subject late for that night time’s recreation.
The Los Angeles Dodgers knew prematurely that Betts would miss the primary pitch towards the Cubs. And Supervisor Dave Roberts had put Betts on discover that after he arrived he was going to be enjoying shortstop for the primary time in his main league profession — and for the primary time at any stage in 10 years.
So which was extra harrowing for Betts, an All-Star outfielder and Most Worthwhile Participant Award winner: the nervousness of being caught in visitors whereas the sport was beginning, or enjoying shortstop within the majors for the primary time?
“Cab experience,” Roberts guessed with out lacking a beat.
Roberts, in his ninth season because the Dodgers’ supervisor, is understood for his superhuman-like communication together with his gamers. However on this query, he whiffed.
“Nah, man, going out to quick for the primary time was positively extra nerve-racking,” Betts mentioned over the weekend at Dodger Stadium, the place he smashed two house runs, drove in three runs, scored three extra and made his fifth begin at shortstop whereas main the first-place Dodgers to a three-game sweep of the slumping San Diego Padres.
Betts’s reply, although, got here with a caveat: His debut at shortstop was extra nerve-racking as a result of his late arrival prevented him from taking any floor balls earlier than the sport.
“It was simply — bam!” Betts mentioned.
Generally, Betts allowed, it’s finest that approach. Few issues rattle him on a baseball diamond, and a decade into his huge league profession, his antics and talents not shock his teammates. So his usually filling in at shortstop and second base, along with having his traditional outfield duties, is precisely the form of factor they might anticipate him to do, no matter how ridiculous that sounds.
“I imply, the man bowls 300s within the morning and is available in and hits house runs at night time,” first baseman Freddie Freeman mentioned, referencing certainly one of Betts’ broadly recognized hobbies. “The man’s a particular expertise. He’s a whole staff participant, three totally different positions already this 12 months within the first 37, 38 video games. Switching positions and main off each single day, it’s a tricky activity. But when anyone can deal with it, it’s him.”
Betts’s more and more frequent infield assignments are borne out of necessity. When final 12 months’s Dodgers shortstop, Trea Turner, signed an 11-year, $300 million take care of Philadelphia within the low season, the Dodgers made a acutely aware resolution to step again with their very own payroll. The thought was to reset their roster, give alternatives to prospects akin to infielder Miguel Vargas and outfielder James Outman and parlay their years of successful — 9 Nationwide League West titles in 10 years — with out having to rebuild.
The Dodgers weren’t a lot slashing their payroll as selecting their spots. Although down from final 12 months’s determine, a league-high $270 million, their $225 million payroll in 2023 nonetheless ranks fifth in Main League Baseball.
The thought was to play Gavin Lux, a homegrown participant with a promising bat, at shortstop and Vargas at second. However when Lux suffered a season-ending knee harm in spring coaching, plans modified.
What the Dodgers had been left with was Miguel Rojas, 34, a veteran acquired in a commerce with Miami throughout the winter to assist Lux regulate to shortstop, and Chris Taylor, a utility participant extra accustomed to the outfield.
Enter Betts, who had made occasional appearances at second base going all the way in which again to his rookie season in Boston. He grew up enjoying shortstop and had dreamed of sooner or later doing so within the majors.
“I didn’t suppose I used to be truly going to finish up enjoying quick, however I at all times advised them, like, ‘Hey, you recognize, I’m out there to do it if push ever involves shove,’” Betts mentioned. “And push got here to shove.”
Push coming to shove is a constant, if typically unwelcome, intruder within the recreation. The Tigers famously moved heart fielder Mickey Stanley to shortstop for the 1968 World Collection, eradicating the light-hitting common Ray Oyler. Stanley had by no means performed the place earlier than but he managed it nicely and Detroit defeated the Cardinals in seven video games.
Many years later, in 2012, Detroit had as soon as once more developed a vexing gap when Victor Martinez suffered a season-ending knee harm. In contrast to Lux’s harm, Martinez’s occurred nicely earlier than the season began. So the Tigers signed the free agent slugger Prince Fielder and shoved an agreeable, however not notably sleek, Miguel Cabrera from first base to 3rd.
“You got here up as a shortstop, this needs to be straightforward for you,” Dino Ebel, who was the Angels’ third-base coach that 12 months and now has that position with the Dodgers, teased Cabrera when the their groups confronted one another.
“He was like, ‘Yeah, right here I’m, enjoying the left facet of the diamond once more,’” Ebel mentioned.
Betts was drafted as a shortstop by Boston in 2011, and in contrast to Cabrera he had the physique to remain within the place on a long-term foundation. However with the All-Star Dustin Pedroia established at second base within the majors and Xander Bogaerts already within the Crimson Sox system, Betts moved to the outfield. Earlier than his current cameos, he had final performed shortstop professionally within the Arizona Fall League in 2013 and had logged solely 112 skilled innings on the place.
His first look in Chicago had come as a result of Rojas (hamstring) and Taylor (indirect) had been injured. However he has now performed seven video games on the place, together with 5 begins. He dedicated a throwing error Saturday towards San Diego, however he has in any other case been flawless, together with turning a slick double play whereas leaping over a sliding baserunner throughout his debut in Chicago. Superior statistics counsel his defensive play at shortstop, in an admittedly small pattern, has been near elite, simply as it’s at second base and in proper subject.
The change in place has coincided with some additional pop on the plate as nicely: Three of his 9 homers have come whereas enjoying shortstop.
Although Betts has received six Gold Gloves for granted fielder, it has by no means been a secret that he will get bored within the outfield. His favourite place, he mentioned, “in case you may simply choose, it’d in all probability be quick or second, both one. They’re very interchangeable for me. They get probably the most motion and I simply really feel like that’s the place my athleticism form of performs probably the most.”
He added: “I simply advised them, ‘I’m a instrument, use me.’ I’m right here. It’s not like I’m combating for my subsequent contract. I simply wish to win.”
A part of that’s the safety afforded to him by a 12-year, $365 million deal ($30.4 million common annual worth) he signed with the Dodgers forward of the 2020 season. The deal has aged nicely in comparison with among the megadeals handed out final low season, even past Betts’ capacity to shift seamlessly, and with out criticism, to the infield at any time when the staff wants him.
Even as soon as the Dodgers’ roster will get wholesome, Betts has performed the work to show that he’s able to enjoying the infield in a significant variety of innings, with Roberts estimating that he may get between 15 to twenty infield begins this season. That quantity may fluctuate primarily based on efficiency and staff want.
“Once I noticed him in spring coaching taking floor balls, immediately I knew he takes issues severely and he’s not there simply to fiddle and have enjoyable,” Rojas mentioned.
Betts, who has taken day by day floor balls at each second base and shortstop throughout batting apply for years, continuously compares notes with Rojas as they work collectively within the early afternoon. Earlier than the collection opener with the Padres on Friday, Rojas complimented Betts on utilizing the precise method on a selected backhand play. Betts returned a praise concerning Rojas’ correct positioning on a ball in entrance of him.
“He’s among the finest athletes I’ve ever seen,” Freeman mentioned of Betts. “He needs to do no matter he’s requested to do, and he makes it look fairly straightforward.”
That confidence has permeated the clubhouse, with the final word endorsement coming forward of the collection finale in Chicago final month. Roberts was contemplating giving Betts his first begin at shortstop, however with Clayton Kershaw scheduled to pitch, Roberts made positive to verify together with his ace to get his blessing.
“He was like, ‘I’m in,’” Roberts mentioned. “And so at that cut-off date, I believe it freed everyone up that if Clayton trusts him, then let’s simply go and do it.”
Wherever the staff places him defensively, Betts exudes calm. It’s why Roberts was positive the automotive experience from O’Hare Airport to Wrigley Subject would have pressured Betts greater than enjoying shortstop within the majors.
“I marvel not solely on the mechanics of it, however the heartbeat of it,” Roberts mentioned. “As a result of in case you haven’t performed one thing in a significant league recreation, you’d suppose there could be a little bit bit of additional anxiousness. However with him, there’s none.”