Who’s No. 1? Dodgers’ Mookie Betts moved to leadoff spot and hits three home runs
The decision had been dancing around in Dave Roberts’ mind for the last several days.
With the Dodgers’ offense in a mini-slump and his usual rotation of left-handed leadoff hitters scuffling in particular, was it time to put Mookie Betts back at the top of the batting order regardless of who was pitching?
Entering the season, that wasn’t supposed to be a question at all. When the Dodgers traded for, then signed a 12-year extension with Betts, the assumption was he’d be a permanent fixture at the front of the lineup, batting first as he had during his MVP-winning career with the Boston Red Sox.
Yet, prior to Thursday, Betts had led off only five times this season and not once since returning from a finger injury last week, staying put in the two-hole as the Dodgers faced a string of right-handed starters.
“I’ve been doing it my whole life,” Betts said of the No. 1 spot. “I think I’m just comfortable there. It’s one of those things where, you only lead off once, but I enjoy getting things started, creating havoc on the basepaths, trying to score one in the first. I take pride in doing that.”
Would the near trade of Joc Pederson and Ross Stripling from the Dodgers to the Angels for Luis Rengifo have had an impact this season?
Betts turned in a historic performance Thursday with his sixth career three-home-run game, tying an MLB record for the most all-time on a night he also reached base on a hit-by-pitch and infield single. He scored four runs in a 11-2 win over the San Diego Padres.
“I’m definitely here to do what’s best for the team,” Betts said afterward, downplaying the importance of where he hits in the order — but not diminishing its impact. “I’ve led off my whole life. It’s just a comfort thing. But I’m here to do whatever is best. Doc put me at one today so I just went out and played.”
Things might stay like this for a while.
Asked afterward if he’ll keep hitting Betts first, Roberts called it “a very good possibility,” especially with Corey Seager, who hit second Thursday, healthy again after a week-long absence with a back injury.
“Just looking at things and seeing how I want to construct the lineup,” Roberts said, “there’s a very good possibility of that.”
Betts’ return to the leadoff role — even with a right-handed starter on the mound Thursday in the Padres’ Chris Paddack — came in the wake of recent conversations between Roberts and Betts about how to best utilize the four-time All-Star in the Dodgers’ loaded lineup.
“We’ve talked a lot about it, the most recent was a couple days ago,” Roberts said. “I welcome those conversations. It’s just understanding what I’m thinking, what he’s thinking, what’s best for our ballclub.”
Roberts had previously described the decision to not have Betts lead off as a tactical choice, putting him in the same No. 2 spot where many of the sport’s other top hitters, such as Mike Trout and Aaron Judge, reside.
But recent struggles from Max Muncy and Joc Pederson — the left-handed hitters most often slotted above Betts in the batting order and who are both hitting below .170 — began to change the Dodgers’ calculus. Seager’s return paved the way for a lineup shuffle, giving Roberts another attractive option for the second spot.
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“I looked at how guys are swinging and that’s why I made the decision, once we got Corey back today, to hit Mookie leadoff,” Roberts said. “There are some guys that are struggling and there’s some other guys that we’d like to get potentially five at-bats.”
Which is exactly how many times Betts came to the plate Thursday.
“It’s just trying to find a comfort in the lineup in general,” Betts said. “[We’ve] kind of struggled a little bit, but today was a good day. Hopefully we can just build off this.”
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