May 27, 2024

There was a moment after the 4-2 defeat to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday night when Mookie Betts actually sounded like a leader.

Betts and Freddie Freeman were a combined one for 13 in the best-of-five National League Division Series, which the Dodgers now trail two games to none. Betts acknowledged what was obvious, that he and Freeman had to produce.

“For me and Freddie, it’s kind of our role,” Betts said. “We’re not doing it. I take ownership in that. So we’ve just got to figure out a way, man. There’s no excuses.”

The more specific the questions, however, the less accountable Betts was.

Diamondbacks starter Zac Gallen attacked Betts with pitches on the boundaries of the strike zone, or just outside. Was Betts satisfied with his pitch selection?

“I’m not really focused on me right now,” Betts said. “We’re focused on the Dodgers and the Dodgers need to win a game and I’ll do my part. As far as I go, I have to help the team win and figure out a way.

“Doesn’t matter where the pitches are.”

Betts slumped his way out of most valuable player consideration in September, but batted .296 over his final eight games of the regular season. Did he think he found something then?

“I’m not even thinking about me, man,” Betts replied. “So the ‘me’ questions, no bueno. No bueno. It’s just going to be focused on the Dodgers right now.”

Huh?

Little wonder the Dodgers are behind in this series. Betts is their best player and sounded like Manny Machado. He is the highest-paid player on the team and was talking as if he’s a role player making the major league minimum.

Considering his importance to the team, Betts has a responsibility to think about himself. As manager Dave Roberts is fond of saying, as Betts goes, the Dodgers go. Betts is the best player on the team and he’s 0 for 7 in this series, reaching base only on a walk in Game 1 and an error and fielder’s choice in Game 2.

Betts can say whatever he wants, but the locations of pitches absolutely matter. His manager certainly thinks so.

“I think he’s expanding a little bit,” Roberts said. “He’s really good at controlling the strike zone and hitting pitches, but I think the first couple of games, it seems more that he’s being aggressive on pitchers’ pitches.”

That was certainly the case in each of Betts’ three at-bats against Gallen, who was 17-9 with a 3.47 earned-run average during the regular season.

Mookie Betts follows through on a foul ball in the fourth inning Monday night in Game 2 of the NLDS.

Mookie Betts follows through on a foul ball in the fourth inning Monday night in Game 2 of the NLDS.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Betts flied out to right on the second pitch of his first at-bat, a 94-mph fastball that might or might not have grazed the far edge of the zone.

Betts flied out again in the third inning, this time to left, on another borderline pitch. This one was high.

During the most important sequence of the game in which he was involved, Betts stepped into the batter’s box in the fifth inning with one out, men on first and second and the Dodgers down by only a 3-1 margin.

He flailed at another pitch along the outside border of the strike zone, resulting in a forceout at second. The Dodgers didn’t score that inning. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. homered in the top of the sixth to increase the Diamondbacks’ advantage to 4-1.

“They got some good pitchers and they’re making it tough,” Betts said. “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”

That’s true, but some players can perform difficult tasks, which is why they’re paid more than others.

Betts spoke the way he did last year before the Dodgers were eliminated by the San Diego Padres at this stage of the postseason, as if he had no control over his fate. Maybe this is how he deals with pressure. Maybe he is realistic. Whatever the case, this isn’t how the greatest athletes think. Clayton Kershaw was destroyed when he pitched Game 1 of this series with a damaged shoulder and sounded afterward as if he believed that his will alone could produce a different result if he pitches again in Game 4.

Betts is a two-time World Series champion, but he didn’t perform well in the 2018 postseason with the Boston Red Sox and his heroics in the 2020 playoffs with the Dodgers occurred in front of few, if any, spectators because of COVID protocols.

He’s now three for his last 34 in the postseason, dating to 2021.

The Dodgers can’t have any more of this. For them to have any chance at reversing this deficit, Betts will have to hit. At this point, that might be less about his swing mechanics and more about his thought process.

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