The evaporation of a 3-1 series lead always leaves one looking for an explanation of precisely how the comeback (or collapse) managed to unfold. There are usually two answers to reach for: In some cases, the team with the series advantage suffered some sort of strange and debilitating meltdown. In others, the team that came back was simply the better squad all along, and was always going to win four out of seven games, no matter what order they came in. It’s the latter answer that best explains how the Dodgers overcame a 3-1 series deficit against the Braves and advanced to the World Series, and there is no clearer embodiment of the truth of that than Mookie Betts.
It was Cody Bellinger’s gorgeous, go-ahead homer in the seventh inning that ultimately made the difference in the Dodgers’ 4-3 win, but that heroic moment was only made possible by work Betts had done earlier in the game. In the top of the fifth inning, with Atlanta leading 3-2, Freddie Freeman rocked a ball to right field that looked destined to clear the fence, right up until Betts decided to intervene and save his team a run:
This was just the latest in the collection of outstanding defensive plays that Betts made in the series, each of them coming in meaningful, high-leverage moments. You could see how much the catch meant to the Dodgers’ chances in the reaction of Bellinger, who celebrated by looking up and stretching his arms towards the sky, seemingly thanking God that Betts was on his team.
Of course you know that Betts shouldn’t be on this team. He’s only in Los Angeles because the Boston Red Sox, who won a World Series with Betts on their roster in 2018, traded him away after last season so that the team could avoid paying the luxury tax and gain the prize most beloved by ownership groups and modern MLB front offices: “payroll flexibility.” The trade was one of the most rotten, cynical, self-defeating decisions ever made by an MLB team, and the Red Sox should never be allowed to live it down.
Star players have been traded before, and the teams who shipped them out of town have used the incoming assets and, ugh, payroll flexibility to find future success. Perhaps that will eventually happen for the Red Sox, but even if it does, it’s important to remember how clarifying performances like the one Betts submitted last night can be.
Baseball is increasingly a game that is won by things like analytically constructed lineups, extreme defensive shifts, and aggressive use of the bullpen. In this context, in which wins are the result of the proper percentages being played and the right value additions being made to the lineup, it can be easy to lose sight of what an individual player can actually mean to a team. It can be easy to forget that there is a difference between good players and those who were sent to the field by a higher power.
Sometimes it takes a series like the one Betts just had to remind us that he is the latter. You can watch Betts make that catch at the wall and understand that he plays the game like nobody else, but you can also come to the same understanding in the smaller moments. You see the magic coming off of him whenever he makes a breezy spring from first to third; you see it when you realize that he’s never surprised by the arrival of the warning track on a deep fly ball, and never mistimes his jump at the wall; you see it every time he ends up in a two-strike count, and the last thing you expect is for him to see a third.
The fact that Betts was ever deemed expendable by a big-market team that ostensibly exists to entertain its fans and win baseball games is as searing an indictment of modern baseball as anyone could author. It’s a little ironic, then, that it’s Betts himself who is currently offering the most compelling reasons to keep watching. No matter what’s happening to the sport around him—no matter how many line drives get gobbled up by shifts, no matter how many starters are strategically pulled in the fourth inning—Betts will go on running, leaping, hitting, and being everything a baseball fan could ask for.