LOS ANGELES — Last season, the Dodgers began their explosive offensive run once Mookie Betts was permanently slotted into the leadoff spot. They’re hoping for the same type of magic in 2021.
With Trea Turner now on the team, Betts was slotted as the team’s No. 3 hitter for most of the last month. But with the Dodgers in a bit of an offensive funk, they decided to move Betts back atop of their lineup, sliding Turner down to the three-hole.
The move certainly worked on Saturday. Betts delivered the big swing, launching a three-run homer to help the Dodgers beat the Padres, 5-4, at Dodger Stadium. With the win, the Dodgers remained 2 1/2 games behind the Giants in the National League West race with 19 games left in the regular season.
“When Mookie is right physically, he can impact the game in every facet,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “He did that on both sides of the ball tonight.”
Roberts is right. When Betts is healthy, there aren’t many players in the Majors better than him. He’s going to be the key moving forward if the Dodgers are going to have a chance to edge the Giants in the division race. The star outfielder has dealt with a hip issue all season long, but after receiving multiple cortisone shots, Betts has said this is the healthiest he’s felt all season.
His play hasn’t always backed that up, but Betts is starting to show signs once again. He’s running the bases more efficiently and he showed on Saturday that he’s getting closer to his top form in the outfield. Betts is also starting to swing the bat better over the last two weeks.
With a 2-for-3 performance on Saturday, Betts is now hitting .346 (9-for-26) with five RBIs over his last eight games. His fifth-inning homer off Padres reliever Craig Stammen was his first since Aug. 31.
“Everybody has done a great job in helping me to get back on the field,” Betts said. “I think I’m in a pretty good spot right now.”
While Betts delivered the big hit, the Dodgers’ offense still isn’t clicking like they hoped. They recorded just four hits and the Betts homer off Stammen was their only at-bat with runners in scoring position. They did, however, get some welcomed production from the bottom of the order, which has been nonexistent over the last few weeks.
Gavin Lux, who started his second game in left field on Saturday, opened the scoring with an RBI double in the third. Lux drove in Cody Bellinger, who, in the midst of a disastrous season at the plate, made a noticeable adjustment to his stance and drew a leadoff walk, just his second since Aug. 13.
“It was big,” Roberts said of the production from the bottom of the order. “When collectively we’re not swinging the bats like we’re going to, to kind of have some length and have guys take at-bats and earn a walk, keep the line moving, it’s helpful. Those guys picked us up tonight.”
That offensive production was enough support for Walker Buehler, who continued his NL Cy Young Award bid with yet another strong outing. Buehler didn’t have his best stuff on Saturday, but he was able to bounce back from his worst performance of the season against the Giants. He was able to limit the damage, allowing just two runs and striking out five over seven innings of work. It was the 13th time this season Buehler completed seven or more innings.
“At some point some part of you has to get rid of it and forget about it, but we have a lot of guys throwing the ball well and I want to be a part of that group,” Buehler said. “Tonight probably wasn’t my best, but thankfully with our offense and the guys behind me, it was enough.”
But perhaps the biggest moments of the game belonged to Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly. After Blake Treinen allowed two runs in a rare bad outing, Kelly stepped up and recorded the two biggest outs of the game. With Fernando Tatis Jr. representing the game-tying run at third base, Kelly struck out Wil Myers on a wicked curveball. He followed that up by doing the same to Tommy Pham, ending the threat.
“It was obviously a huge spot,” Roberts said. “Joe made some pitches and he just filled up the strike zone. Just really good. We needed a punchout there in the Myers at-bat, he did that. He saved the game.”
With the way the Giants are playing, the Dodgers are going to have to be nearly flawless if they want to win a ninth consecutive division title. They were tested on Saturday, but they answered back and became the second team to reach the 90-win mark this season.