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‘When Mookie’s smiling, good things are happening’: The playoff awakening of a superstar

Mookie Betts (left) dances as he celebrates his eighth inning RBI double that put Boston ahead, 7-4.jim davis/globe staff

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A nippy bunch of Red Sox fans wanted to show Mookie Betts their appreciation late Sunday night at Fenway Park. So the 37,960 on hand showered their right fielder with M-V-P chants, recent struggles be damned.

J.D. Martinez may have more homers. Chris Sale may be more vital in October. But Mookie Betts is the face of the Red Sox, and they’ll only go as far as he takes them.

Betts awoke with a vengeance Sunday in Game 2 of the ALCS, answering his adorers with his second double of the evening which placed Boston firmly ahead, 7-4, in the eighth inning. He thrust out his hips with fervor upon reaching second base, shimmying for all to see. It was long overdue.

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Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts game 2 press conference after win over Astros
Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts game 2 press conference after win over Astros

“I just go out and do what I can to help the team win,” said Betts. “Try and be consistent in having some good at-bats and getting some timely hits and whatnot. But it’s not just me. We’ve got 25 guys out here to win.”

Almost to a man, the Red Sox cite Betts as the heartbeat of the ballclub. Though Betts’s humility makes for snooze-filled news conferences, his earnest demeanor and willingness to deflect praise are widely appreciated in Boston’s clubhouse.

“When Mookie’s smiling, good things are happening,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora.

“He’s Mookie Betts,” added David Price, Boston’s Game 2 starter. “He’s the MVP of our team. He’s the MVP of baseball.”

Yet for whatever reason, Betts has yet to make an imprint come autumn. He simply hasn’t been the same world-beating basher once October rolls around. Entering Sunday, he was just 11 for 46 (.239) in postseason play, and just 4 for 20 in 2018.

Before Game 2, Astros manager A.J. Hinch called Betts a “ticking time bomb,” overdue for eruption.

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Hinch proved clairvoyant in the bottom of the first, Betts driving a heater on the outside corner of the plate off the center-field wall. Houston starter Gerrit Cole pounded Betts with all fastballs and finally No. 50 found one he liked, squaring it up for his sixth hit in nine career at-bats against the Astros’ slinger.

Betts came around to score the game’s first run a batter latter as Andrew Benintendi piped a single to the right side.

“[Mookie] ignited them from the very beginning of the game,” said Hinch. “The energy of this place when he comes up to bat is really electrifying. From the first at-bat on he set the tone. That’s why he’s very much an MVP [at least candidate].”

Betts wasn’t able to hurt Cole again, flying out to center in the second and sending a dribbler to the pitcher’s mound in the fourth.

He reached base in the bottom of the seventh, drawing a walk off Houston reliever Lance McCullers Jr. Boston led by a run at the time, and Betts represented a massive insurance clause considering the Red Sox’ inconsistent bullpen.

Betts’s ability to make an impact in the creases of a game make him invaluable to the Red Sox. He showcased that versatility after being gifted the free pass, wreaking havoc on the basepaths and buying Boston some breathing room. Betts advanced to second on a wild pitch, took third on a passed ball, then scurried home on yet another mistake by Astros’ catcher Martin Maldonado.

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All three pitches were curveballs that McCullers spiked.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever practiced secondary leads to be honest — not in professional ball,” said Betts. “I think it’s just instincts. You’ve got to trust what you see. That’s what I’ve always been told. And anytime you start thinking about what you want to do here, what you want to do there, is when things go wrong.”

Betts widened Boston’s cushion in the eighth, lacing a two-bagger into right center off Hector Rondon to score Rafael Devers for a 7-4 lead. He danced as the crowd went delirious with applause.

The Red Sox held on an inning later for a 7-5 triumph.

“Yesterday, [Mookie] got a pitch middle-middle and just rolled over [it] with the bases loaded,” said Cora. “Tonight he was able to stay in the middle of the ballpark and it was good. And I saw him smiling today, which is always good.”

A happy Mookie Betts is a sight for sore eyes all across Boston , the briefly subdued superstar alive and kicking yet again.


Owen Pence can be reached at owen.pence@globe.com.