Nobody ever expected the name Mookie would be popular in Boston one day. Not after Mookie Wilson dribbled that ball between Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.
But maybe the Baseball Gods have a way of evening things up. Maybe they have bestowed the Red Sox this Mookie to wipe away the cloud created by the “other” Mookie.
If you believe in that type of kismet, terrific; if not, just accept the fact that Mookie Betts is one exciting young player, cut in the mold of Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, players who made an immediate impact on team performance while creating excitement.
This is a 22-year-old kid who eats ice cream every day.
He went 2 for 4 with four RBIs, two steals on the same play, and a great catch in center. All four RBIs came against Jordan Zimmermann, one of the best starting pitchers in the league, but it didn’t matter. Betts conquered him.
This was a good example of why you don’t trade Betts for Cole Hamels or Zimmermann. He’s an everyday player who, if he keeps up this type of play, will be integral to far more wins than even the best starting pitchers can provide.
Betts is a bundle of baseball and you can’t wait to see his next at-bat.
On Opening Day at Fenway Park Monday, which part of the game did you not see him conquer?
He reached on a leadoff walk courtesy of Zimmermann, who will become a free agent at the end of the season and might be of interest to the Red Sox.
With the shift on and David Ortiz up, he broke for second, stole the bag, and upon popping himself up saw no one manning third because of the overshift.
He tried to outrace third baseman Yunel Escobar and Zimmermann, who had the ball. After the Nationals challenged that Betts was tagged out at second base and third base, a review determined he won both races.
It was similar to the 2009 World Series, when the Yankees’ Johnny Damon stole second and noticed no Phillies were covering third.
“I got a pretty good jump and had a good idea I was safe at second,” Betts said. “I looked up to see where the pitcher was, and at that point I didn’t think anybody could catch me. It was instinct mostly, but [first base coach] Arnie [Beyeler] talked to me a little bit about the shift. He just told me the shift is on and watch it. It just happened to open up for me.”
Betts was asked to rank the three outstanding things he did during the first two innings and he said, “The stolen bases thing was probably the favorite thing. I think it gave energy to myself and the crowd. We had a long night and it gave us the lead, 1-0 [when Ortiz knocked him in], and I gained a great deal of confidence as well.”
In the first inning, he made a tremendous leaping catch to rob Bryce Harper of extra bases near the right-center fence, robbing him of a home run.
“It was hit pretty high and I got back to the wall and timed it and jumped. It didn’t hit me until afterward when I threw the ball in that I had caught it,” Betts said.
When you think about how infrequently Betts has played center field in his life and that he’s pretty much cutting his teeth playing in the biggest center field in baseball, the story keeps getting better.
He’s no Jackie Bradley defensively, but very few are. Yet if someone had to supplant Bradley, who started to find his hitting stroke in spring training and currently is in Pawtucket, then Betts has been a strong replacement, giving Boston the leadoff hitter it has lacked since Ellsbury signed with the Yankees as a free agent.
He drew rave reviews from the Nationals, particularly Harper.
“Mookie’s a great player,” Harper said. “I think being able to go from second base to center field is pretty impressive. He’s got ups. It’s pretty impressive to see him jumping over the wall like that and robbing a homer.”
Harper said he knew a little bit about Betts because he’s often mentioned with the Cubs’ Addison Russell and Kris Bryant as some of the more impressive young players in baseball.
“Seeing what he did today — that bat speed he has, the running ability he has, being able to play center field like he does, he’d be in the lineup every day for me if he was mine,” Harper said.
Veteran Jayson Werth thinks Betts changed the complexion of the game.
“I’ll hand it to their guy who made that catch on Bryce in center field. That was an unbelievable play. That really set the tone for the game right there,” said Werth, who was activated off the disabled list before the game.
Betts helped in adding crooked numbers to the score.
In the second inning, with Xander Bogaerts and Sandy Leon aboard, Betts showed his quick hands and power, slamming a 1-1 slider by Zimmermann into the Monster seats to give Boston a 4-0 lead.
In the third, there was an RBI infield hit.
“He’s one of the best pitchers in the NL, so you know what you’re going up against,” said Betts. “First time I faced him. He could have been off, but he’s one of the best at that level.”
On whether it was the best two-inning sequence in his career, “I’ve had some successful things, but to do it now, that was special,” he said.
A year ago, he was playing second base for the Portland Sea Dogs and wowing them there. What a meteoric rise.
But it was his time — and time to bury the old Mookie memories and start the new and positive ones.