HOUSTON — Mookie Betts has the misfortune of playing in the same league as the 21st-century Mickey Mantle. And so, despite putting up eye-popping numbers and leading the Boston Red Sox to a division crown last year, Betts watched the MVP award go to Mike Trout. Again.
This season, Trout is injured, sidelined until next month after surgery on a torn ligament in his left thumb. But with the modern-era Mantle MIA, it’s the Ruthian home-run binge of New York Yankees rookie slugger Aaron Judge that has taken baseball by storm, making him the early favorite in the AL MVP race.
Here’s a hunch: You might want to bet on Betts.
Betts starred in the Red Sox’s series-opening 2-1 victory over the best-in-the-majors Houston Astros on Friday night. He threw out a runner at home plate to end the sixth inning, then blasted a go-ahead solo homer in the eighth, a performance that came two nights after Betts almost single-handedly beat the Philadelphia Phillies with four hits, two homers and three RBIs.
Don’t look now, but Betts is quietly duplicating what he did last season. In the past nine games, he’s 15-for-37 with six walks, raising his average to .281 and his OPS to .867. He has three homers in his past three games, bringing his team-leading total to 12. He’s doing it all out of the leadoff spot for a Red Sox team that lacks power in the wake of David Ortiz‘s retirement. And after winning a Gold Glove last season, he’s playing stellar defense once again in right field.
“I mean, he’s unbelievable,” Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes said. “He was second in the MVP voting last year. The guy is doing it at the plate, he’s doing it defensively. It’s fun. I’m glad he’s on my team, you know? He’s an incredible player.”
Judge’s power surge has been breathtaking, his titanic homers captivating crowds wherever he goes. And he is a superb athlete too, making highlight-reel plays in right field for the Yankees. Entering play Friday, Judge was leading the majors with a 3.9 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
But Betts was right on his tail with a 3.4 WAR. And in terms of all-around players with the ability to take over a game, it’s difficult to find any player who is Betts’ equal, save for Trout, of course.
Astros third-base coach Gary Pettis seemed to have misjudged Betts’ arm in the sixth inning Friday night. With speedy George Springer on second base and two out, Carlos Correa shot a hard-hit ball through the right side of the infield. Betts fielded the ball without charging it and came up throwing as Springer rounded third base. Betts’ peg was clocked at 96.8 mph, according to Statcast, and beat Springer to the plate by at least 15 feet.
“I was running back behind home, and by the time I turned back around, the ball was already skipping back to Vazquez and [Springer] wasn’t even close to starting his slide,” Red Sox starter Drew Pomeranz said. “It was pretty cool.”
Said Betts: “Springer’s not slow, the ball was hit well. I think you’ve got to send him. It was the right play. I just ended up making a good play. You don’t get those opportunities very much. For me to be successful at that time was definitely something I take pride in.”
Betts was proud of his season last year, MVP or no MVP. If he’s out to prove anything, it’s only that last year wasn’t a fluke. Indeed, if Betts feels extra motivated by finishing second to Trout, he isn’t letting on.
“That has nothing to do with anything this year,” Betts said. “My No. 1 thing is to win a World Series. The rest comes as it comes.”
And don’t count out the MVP still coming Betts’ way, no matter how many homers Judge hits.