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When it comes to big plays, Mookie Betts is selective in what he savors

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts homers against Tampa Bay Rays.
Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts homers against Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of the World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas on Tuesday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

There’s something telling about the plays Mookie Betts celebrates most.

He hardly flinches after most home runs, such as his sixth-inning blast in the Dodgers’ 8-3 win in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday. He simply put his head down and calmly trotted around the bases, showing almost no emotion aside from a wave to his family.

But big plays on defense, or the base paths, or even those made by his teammates? That’s when Betts’ inner-competitor comes out. Those are the moments he seems to savor the most.

Like when he made a backward leaping catch against Marcell Ozuna in Game 6 of the NLCS, a run-saving snag that sent him dancing across the warning track. Or his slide home in the fifth inning Tuesday, when he bent over and pumped a clenched fist after beating out a play at the plate. Or his flex while running in from right field in the seventh, celebrating pitcher Victor González’s inning-ending double play.

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Remember when the Dodgers used to be considered too all-or-nothing in the playoffs? That’s not a problem anymore, thanks in large part to perhaps the sport’s greatest all-around player.

Photos from Game 1 of the World Series between the Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

“Whether it’s a defensive play that helps the team or a base-running play that gets himself into scoring position for a teammate to drive in a run — I think he just gets more satisfaction out of that,” manager Dave Roberts said. “When it’s a home run, which certainly helps the team, he just doesn’t care for all the statistics. He just plays the game to win.”

Take the fifth inning in Tuesday’s game. When Betts came to the plate to lead off the frame, he was 0-for-2 on the night. But in both at-bats he’d worked a full count, seeing Rays starter Tyler Glasnow’s unusually long, loopy release 14 times. With that in mind, he laid off a 1-and-1 curveball and two upper-90-mph fastballs to force a walk.

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That’s when the real fun began.

Facing a pitcher widely known to struggle holding baserunners, Betts took off on the third pitch of Corey Seager’s next at-bat, which ended in a walk, then initiated another double steal that moved him and Seager into scoring position.

When Max Muncy grounded to first later in the inning, Betts was running on contact and slid home just in front of the tag.

“I knew I had to work really hard on the secondary [lead] and be ready for contact,” Betts said. “Luckily, [first baseman Yandy Diaz] had to move to his right a little bit and make a tough throw. It all unfolded in a good way.”

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After the Dodgers batted around in the fifth, Betts led off again in the sixth. Newly inserted left-handed reliever Josh Fleming started him out with an outside sinker. Betts slapped a solo home run the other way.

Roberts and starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw both identified the long ball, Betts’ first of the postseason and first against any left-handed pitcher this year, as the former MVP’s best play on Tuesday night. Center fielder Cody Bellinger picked Betts’ steal of third. But Betts himself?

“I’m most proud of the contact play [to score],” he said. “Got a run there, and then it was first-and-third and we scored a couple more. … It just showed we don’t have to hit home runs to be successful.”

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That’s the secret behind Betts’ seemingly boundless impact. He understands the residual benefits his five-tool skill set creates.

Clayton Kershaw, Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts were unstoppable in Game 1 of the World Series, showing how the Dodgers and Rays aren’t on the same level.

“He’s so dedicated to doing that,” Bellinger said. “Nothing’s forced. He just wants to do it, he wants to win. You can learn from that.”

It’s becoming Dodgers fans’ favorite thing to cheer for too.

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After each of the team’s last four wins, a growing contingent of spectators have waited around to chant “Mooooooook!” as he finishes his postgame TV interviews. They were back again Tuesday, screaming once again as he walked off the field.

“We love Mookie!” they declared.

So do his teammates, who for so long have come up ever-so-short without him.

“The day in, day out consistency of what he does on the baseball field separates him,” Kershaw said. “You might see one game and not really appreciate Mookie to his full potential. But now that we’ve seen it for a full — well, COVID-shortened season, but a full season for us — you kind of get to appreciate it.”


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