Dodgers takeaways: Mookie Betts shares secret to his surge; Walker Buehler hits 100
Two weeks ago, Mookie Betts was one of the Dodgers coldest hitters, epitomizing the slow start many of the team’s big-name batters were suffering to start the season.
Despite their MLB-best 19-7 record, which the team added to with a dominant three-game sweep of the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field during the weekend, the Dodgers are still waiting for several stars to look more like themselves.
Betts, however, is no longer one of them.
Starting with his two home run performance in San Diego on April 22, the right fielder is batting 18 for 54 (.333) over his past 14 games. All five of his home runs this season have come during the stretch. It has also included 10 RBIs, eight walks and only five strikeouts.
“I’ve felt pretty good, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped grinding,” said Betts, who is now batting .263 on the season with an .801 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, which ranks second on the team. “Still in the cage working, still a work in progress just to be able to do it night in and night out.”
The Dodgers are hoping he can become an example for some of their other hitters to follow, snapping out of a poor start to quickly rediscover vintage form.
“A week ago we’re saying he’s going to figure it out,” manager Dave Roberts said, “and now … he’s playing good baseball.”
Here are more takeaways on Betts and the team coming out of their trip to Chicago.
Betts in better mental space
Asked how Betts has turned things around, Roberts identified a few small mechanical tweaks he made in his lower half.
The former MVP, however, cited another change that he’s been focused on this season.
“I think just the mental side of it has been the biggest difference,” he said. “Just being more positive. Looking for the next opportunity instead of dwelling on the last one. And just trying to enjoy each and every day.”
The Dodgers make it look easy against the Chicago Cubs, winning their sixth game in a row and improving their record to 19-7, tops in the majors.
During his struggles during the opening weeks of the season, when he went eight for 45 with no home runs, Betts said he hadn’t been “mentally tough,” letting frustrations compound and uncertainty creep in.
Lately, he’s found a reflective routine that’s helped, including listening to mental health audio books such as “Can’t Hurt Me” by marathon runner and former Navy Seal David Goggins.
“I know it sounds kind of corny, but it actually really does work,” Betts said. “Not anything to make you ready to run through a wall. But just perspective. Putting things into perspective. It helps a lot.”
He added: “That’s why you see me smile and those types of things a lot more. We don’t play this game long enough to dwell and be sad all the time.”
Blake Treinen is out until at least after the All-Star break, with the reliever set to rehab shoulder inflammation. Victor González will also miss more time.
Betts couldn’t remember exactly what got him into the genre, and said he never expected himself to connect with such material. But it’s helped him turn things around on the field, giving him a renewed disposition that the rest of the team has noticed.
“Mookie is a very emotions-on-the-sleeves kind of guy,” Roberts said. “There was a lot of, ‘Am I good enough?’ type things, [but] as long as that jersey says Betts on the back of it, every player on the field knows who is in the batter’s box.”
Buehler’s historic 100 starts
During his 100th career start Sunday, Walker Buehler’s continuing evolution as a pitcher was on display.
The right-hander once known primarily for his fastball continued to treat the cutter as his new bread-and-butter, throwing it a career-high 38 times to induce soft contact and work more efficiently in a seven-inning, one-run outing.
He effectively mixed in his arsenal of secondary pitches, keeping the Cubs off balance with an assortment of sliders, curveballs and changeups while racking up six strikeouts.
Afterward, he acknowledged his maturing approach on the mound now compared to his younger years.
“Back then, I just tried to pick up my leg and throw it by everyone,” he said. “I think my goals are a little bit different, trying to be efficient and trying to get deep into games.”
Clayton Kershaw and Tyler Anderson had strong starts to lift the Dodgers to a doubleheader sweep of the Cubs as L.A. began a demanding 30-day span.
It has all resulted in near-historic numbers to this point of Buehler’s career. According to Sarah Langs of MLB.com, only three pitchers since 1969 (when the league lowered the mounds) have posted a better ERA through their first 100 career starts than Buehler’s 2.70 mark. His 0.99 WHIP is the best in that period.
Those numbers also rank among the best of any big-league pitcher of this generation. Since Buehler joined the Dodgers rotation in 2018, only Jacob deGrom and Justin Verlander have better ERAs as starters. Among his Dodgers teammates in that time, only Clayton Kershaw has racked up more wins than Buehler’s 43.
“It’s kind of wild that it’s been 100 [starts],” Buehler said Sunday, before referencing Kershaw: “Hopefully I can be as good as he was in his second 100.”
Another starter needed Wednesday
Because the Dodgers played a double-header on Saturday, they’ll need to find another starting pitcher for the finale of their upcoming three game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday.
Possible options cited by Roberts include: Andre Jackson, the 26-year-old right-hander who flashed potential in three outings with the Dodgers last season; Ryan Pepiot, one of the team’s top pitching prospects who has a 2.05 ERA with Class AAA Oklahoma City this season; and even Robbie Erlin, the journeyman left-hander who was called up as the extra player for the double-header and is being kept on the roster right now to give the bullpen some length.
“We’re still kind of in talks with who that’s going to be,” Roberts said, adding that a bullpen game isn’t a possibility.
MLB made more changes to the baseballs this season and the results have been fewer home runs and a lot of frustrated players.
Tyler Anderson and Clayton Kershaw, who each pitched in the doubleheader, will be kept on normal rest. Anderson will pitch next on Thursday back home against the Philadelphia Phillies. Kershaw will follow him on Friday.
Wednesday likely won’t be the last time the Dodgers need a sixth starter this month. Roberts has said the team will use a six-man rotation at times as they navigate a stretch of 31 games in 30 days.
Barnes’ bat adding to dynamic catching duo
Roberts already felt like he had the best catcher in baseball in Will Smith.
But after Austin Barnes’ hot start offensively this season, the manager declared Sunday the Dodgers have the sport’s best duo behind the plate, as well.
Smith has posted solid, albeit unspectacular, numbers through his first 20 games, batting .231 with two home runs, 13 RBIs and a .711 OPS. Barnes, meanwhile, has produced even in limited playing time. He’s batting .261 in eight games. He hit his third home run of the season on Saturday afternoon.
“They’ve been great together,” Roberts said of the two catchers. “I will say that that duo is as good as, is the best in baseball, hands down.”
Figuring out how to maximize the strengths of Austin Barnes and Will Smith will be a challenge for manager Dave Roberts and the Dodgers in 2021.
Barnes said he’s learned how to maximize his sporadic at-bats better this year, both in his between-starts cage work and in his approach during games.
“You’ve got to not overthink, you’ve got to kind of take it day by day,” he said. “Sometimes you get in there and you get going too fast … I just try and take some easy swings. Whatever the situation dictates, try to do that.”
Heaney beginning to throw
Out since April 17 with shoulder discomfort, left-hander Andrew Heaney is finally ready to begin throwing again.
“I feel great,” Heaney said Sunday. “Going through all kinds of exercises, strength tests, all that kind of stuff. It’s always a little bit difficult, trying to figure out what movements bother you or don’t bother you. Kind of got through all that and feel good.”
Heaney said his shoulder started improving a week ago, and that he’ll play catch for the first time on Monday. He said he and the team haven’t set a specific timetable for his return, noting it will depend on how he progresses as he rebuilds his workload. He does expect to go on a minor-league rehab assignment at some point.
“Obviously I want to get back out there,” Heaney said. “It’s just kind of trying to take the time on the front end so that when I feel good and I’m stronger and everything is good it can go faster.”
Everything you need to know about Todd Boehly, the Dodgers co-owner who is at the center of the record-breaking sale of Chelsea FC.
Roberts said the Dodgers can use the ramp-up process to Heaney’s benefit. Though the offseason signing hadn’t given up an earned run in his first two starts, there are still ways the team’s pitching coaches want to refine his arsenal — changes that couldn’t be fully implemented during the lockout-disrupted winter or short spring training.
“When he gets back, I wouldn’t be shocked if there’s an uptick in what he was doing with us in those first few starts,” Roberts said. “There’s some things that we can capture going along with the health of the shoulder.”
Are you a true-blue fan?
Get our Dodgers Dugout newsletter for insights, news and much more.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.