Mookie Betts starts in the infield and smashes two homers as Miguel Vargas struggles

Dodger Mookie Betts points and celebrates his home run as Angels pitcher Griffin Canning and catcher Matt Thaiss look away
Dodgers second baseman Mookie Betts celebrates his third inning home while Angels starting pitcher Griffin Canning and catcher Matt Thaiss look away at Dodger Stadium on Friday.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Mookie Betts made his fourth consecutive start in the infield Friday night, a move that Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said had more to do with second baseman Miguel Vargas’ month-long slump than Betts’ penchant for turbocharging his bat when he plays “in the dirt.”

But it’s getting impossible to ignore the correlation between Betts’ infield starts and his elevated production, especially after the leadoff man hit a pair of solo home runs and a two-run double to lead the Dodgers to an 11-4 victory over the Angels in front of a sellout crowd of 52,214 at Dodger Stadium.

Tony Gonsolin gave up four runs and seven hits in 6 2/3 innings and struck out five to improve to 5-3 with a 3.86 ERA, and he teamed with Julio Urías (six innings, two runs, three hits Thursday) to give the Dodgers consecutive starts of six innings or more for the first time since June 13-14, when Gonsolin and Clayton Kershaw did it.


Freddie Freeman hit a solo homer in the first inning, J.D. Martinez hit a solo shot in the second and an RBI double in the third and Will Smith capped a four-run eighth inning with a two-run homer, as the Dodgers (50-38) won for the fourth time in five games and extended their win streak over the Angels to nine games dating to 2021.

Dodgers designated hitter J.D. Martinez watches his home run soar as Angels pitcher Griffin Canning looks on.
Dodgers designated hitter J.D. Martinez watches his second-inning home run soar off as Angels starting pitcher Griffin Canning looks on at Dodger Stadium on Friday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Angels (45-45) lost for the eighth time in nine games and dropped them to .500 for the first time since June 3, when they were 30-30.

Betts hit his first homer off Angels starter Griffin Canning in the third inning and his second off reliever Tyler Anderson in the fifth, giving him a team-leading 25 homers this season and 27 career multihomer games.

The Angels, shut out for 23 straight innings against the Dodgers this season, finally broke through with a three-run fourth off Gonsolin, who breezed through the first three innings in which he needed only 25 pitches to retire all nine batters.

But Betts lined a homer off the top of the short left-field wall and deflected into the bullpen to push the lead to 5-3 in the fifth, and he followed a two-out single by James Outman and a walk to Miguel Rojas with a two-run double to left to make it 7-3 in the sixth.


Betts will start Tuesday night’s All-Star Game in the outfield, but he now has a .331 average (39 for 118) and 1.072 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 31 games at second base and shortstop and a .243 average (51 for 210) and .864 OPS in 53 games in right field.

The Dodgers’ pitching ranks have been ravaged. The only ace who could rescue them is Julio Urías, who must start living up to his potential.

July 7, 2023

“I do think that we’re starting to see a good trend,” Roberts said. “I know Mookie likes being on the dirt. It keeps him more fresh. It keeps him involved. It keeps him more dynamic, I think. And that certainly could unlock some things.”

Betts, who is batting .277 with a .960 OPS and 61 RBIs this season, isn’t so sure.

“Um ... I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I won [American League] MVP in [2018] in right field, so that’s my argument to that. You know, it doesn’t really matter where I play. The [batter’s] box is the box, and defense is defense. They’re two separate things, and I keep them that way.”

Whether Betts is more energized in the infield or not, his ability to play three different positions at an extremely high level gives Roberts plenty of options and flexibility when filling out his lineup card.

“I think the only comp is [Angels two-way star Shohei] Ohtani, and what he does is incomparable,” Roberts said. “But if you’re talking about somebody who’s doing something that’s unique, at a high level, it’s just very rare.

“You can plug him in at shortstop, at second base, and it’s superstar production on the offensive end, so Mookie’s willingness, eagerness, to kind of do whatever we ask of him is pretty incredible.”


Vargas, meanwhile, is batting .082 (five for 61) with a .375 OPS, three extra-base hits and four RBis in 21 games since June 9, a nose dive that has cost him playing time and could warrant a demotion to triple-A.

“I think everything should be on the table, I really do,” Roberts said before the game.

“There’s a piece of winning here, and there’s also a piece of putting his mind where it needs to be, because clearly right now, he’s pressing. He’s never struggled like this.

“Wins are always important, and there comes a point where we’ve got to run out our best options out there to win a baseball game. So I think that having that optionality to have Mookie in the dirt, to pick matchups for Miguel Vargas, is smart.”

If the Dodgers do demote Vargas, they could recall Michael Busch, who is batting .320 with a 1.023 OPS, 10 homers and 47 RBIs in 52 games at Oklahoma City. And, of course, Betts would play more games in the infield.

“I do believe the defense is getting better, and the experience of being at the major league level is helpful,” Roberts said of Vargas. “But it’s also helpful to feel yourself getting some hits and getting your confidence going.

“I do think [he adds to the team], but at what point do you decide that it could be detrimental? I don’t know the answer right now, but having a conversation is in his best interest and is healthy.”