Tick, tick, tick.
Before Game 2 of the ALCS, up 1-0 after a 7-2 win in Game 1, Astros manager A.J. Hinch spent a leisurely 10 minutes talking to the assembled press in the Red Sox’s interview room. There were questions about the Houston bullpen, about the bottom of the Astros order coming through in Game 1, and about whether managers can improve with playoff reps.
And, oh yeah, there was one about the Red Sox leadoff hitter.
“Just wondering what your team’s approach is against Mookie Betts, and what was going through your mind last night when he was up at bat with the bases loaded?” a reporter asked.
“Our approach is to keep him out of the batter’s box with any opportunity to do damage,” Hinch deadpanned. “He’s one of the most dynamic hitters in baseball. And so you can imagine my thought was panic and fear whenever he comes up to bat with no escape area [as in the bases-loaded at-bat against Justin Verlander].
“He can cover every pitch. He’s a threat to do a lot of different things. So I’m not really going to go over what our pitch approach is going to be to him, but the less of those at-bats we can get, the better, because he’s a ticking time bomb to do some kind of damage.”
To date in the postseason, all Betts had done was tick.
The AL MVP candidate led the majors in WAR (10.9), batting average (.346), slugging (.640), runs created (156), and situational wins added (WPA/LI, at 6.6), and tied for the lead in runs scored (129) during the regular season. He had a .346/.438/.640 line and a 186 OPS+, and finished with 47 doubles, 32 homers, and 30 steals (on 36 attempts)—all career highs. And he did all that in only 136 games, the fewest he’s played in his four full seasons in Boston.
Yet entering Sunday’s game, Betts was hitting just .200/.304/.250 in the postseason. In his young playoff career (now at 13 games), he was at .239/.327/.326.
When the bases were juiced and Verlander was battling an uncharacteristic bout of wildness Saturday night—the visitors ahead 2-1 in the fifth—Betts wanted to attack. He wanted to go for the knockout blow against the Astros ace.
He got a juicy fastball, took a rip, and … dribbled it to Alex Bregman at third. The potential rally fizzled.
The potential American League MVP just hadn’t delivered when the lights had been brightest and it mattered most.
Then after Hinch’s comment Sunday, the ticking started to get louder.
Betts led off the bottom of the first for the Red Sox against Gerrit Cole with a ringing double to center, soaring over George Springer’s head and kicking off the wall. Andrew Benintendi, who’d had a rough Game 1 (0-for-4 with three K’s), then jumped on the first pitch from the big right-hander and lined a single to right center, plating Betts.
“He ignited them from the very beginning of the game,” the Astros manager said of Betts Sunday night. “This place, the energy of this place when he comes up to bat is really electrifying. … That’s why he’s very much an MVP, at least candidate.”
And though Betts didn’t exactly explode and wasn’t much interested in discussing Hinch’s ticking time bomb line after the game—“I think [yesterday] was just one of those days,” he said of the letdown against Verlander and Co. “We’ve been very good at turning the page, and we went out and did our job today”—he made an unmistakable mark on the Red Sox’s 7-5 win to even the series. The pint-sized power hitter lashed two doubles, including a key liner late to plate, an insurance run in the eighth, and scored a key run in the seventh after a walk, advancing on a wild pitch and a passed ball then scoring on a second passed ball.
“A.J. is a smart guy,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora joked after the win when asked about Hinch’s Betts bon mot. “He went to Stanford.”
Kidding aside, if Betts is producing from the top of the Red Sox order, it looks a lot more like the team that led the majors in runs per game and OPS+ this season.
“We were very aggressive tonight, swinging at first pitches,” Cora said of the approach against Cole. “We did a good job attacking him right away: Mookie hits a double; Beni, first pitch, gets a single.”
Though the Sox plated two in the first, it didn’t exactly lead to an explosion—at least not one the size and power they’re capable of. After David Price gave the lead back with two runs in each of the next two frames, the hosts hung three on Cole in the third, thanks to a Jackie Bradley Jr. double, to retake it. Price then exited one out short of qualifying for his first postseason win as a starter, but passed the baton to four relievers—including new setup man Rick Porcello, who pitched a clean eighth with two punchouts—who combined to allow one run before shutting the door on the Astros and sending the series to Houston tied at a game apiece.
And should the 2-for-4, two-run, one-RBI night for Betts prove a sign of fireworks to come, the Red Sox have to like their chances of seeing Fenway under the lights again this postseason.
“He’s Mookie Betts,” Price said. “He’s the MVP of our team. He’s the MVP of baseball. So he means a great deal for us.”
“I saw him smiling today,” Cora said. “When Mookie’s smiling, good things are happening.”