You could hear the rumblings early, before he actually took his final turns at-bat, all eyes on the on-deck circle, where Mookie Betts stood. Two times Friday night, once in the sixth inning and again in the eighth, Betts strode to the Fenway Park plate with the hometown fans willing history into his big bat. Make that more history, to be precise, as they wondered if Betts could somehow turn an already exceptional three-home run night into an historic four-homer one.
So up they leapt from their seats, a slow rumble building into a full-throated roar by the time he stepped into the box, their undivided attention focused on the man who’d nearly given them whiplash with his first three at-bats.
A leadoff home run in the first inning.
A leadoff home run in the third inning.
And a two-run blast in the fourth, all of them soaring into the same green-seated left-field heights, each of them adding up to something extraordinarily special, and something exceedingly rare.
It wasn’t enough that Betts had already moved into an all-time second-place standing in career three-home run games, joining five other players only one spot behind all-time leaders Johnny Mize and Sammy Sosa, who have six apiece. It wasn’t enough that he’d notched his fifth such feat at the ripe old age of 26, or that he is one of only eight players since 1908 with as many as five games with three home runs. It wasn’t enough that he tied the franchise record with three home runs in a game (done 33 times) or matched a team record for consecutive plate appearances with a homer, now having done it twice among the seven times in Red Sox history.
What’s more he was doing it all against the rival first-place Yankees, only the fourth Red Sox all-time to hit three homers against the Bombers, joining Steve Pearce (last season), Kevin Millar (2004), and Mo Vaughn (1997).
The Yankees crumbled under his singlehanded assault, his five RBIs alone almost enough to beat them Friday night, though some help from top-of-the order buddies Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, and J.D. Martinez made it a 10-5 Red Sox final. He was doing it all as the Red Sox are flashing signs of consistency they haven’t managed all year, winners of four of their last five, winners of their last series against fellow division rival Tampa and now assured of at least as split in this four-game set with the Yanks. He was doing it all by finally channeling the MVP form of a season ago, reminding everyone he remains among the game’s best players even if he’s not having his personal best season.
“It’s been a long year, obviously not the same as last year, but you have to kind of roll with the punches,” he conceded afterward. “You just can’t quit. It’s a long season and things can turn around fast. So I was determined to get things rolling, try to be the catalyst at the top to score some runs for Devers and Bogey, who’ve had amazing years. So if I can score some runs I know we can string together some wins.”
He ended the night with a career-high 14 total bases, only the eighth time a Red Sox has had that many.
It started with a strong first-inning at-bat.
“That first one, laying off pitches, working the count, using the strike zone to his advantage, and then he put a good swing,” manager Alex Cora said, “and from there he just took off. It’s always cool when he smiles on the field and today was one of those big nights. So hopefully it’s the beginning of something great.”
This year has been decidedly un-great by Mookie standards, and to his credit, he has not shied away from taking ownership of his struggles. While Devers and Bogaerts have carried the heaviest offensive load, Betts has searched for his mechanics. In so doing, he’s also searched for his signature megawatt smile.
“It’s not that he takes it personal but sometimes with our struggles and him not swinging the bat the way he’s capable of, sometimes he’s very hard on himself,” Cora said. “I’m glad he was able to smile today from the get-go.”
He never really stopped, not as he heard the crowd come to life in those last two at-bats, knowing they wanted another home run as much or more than he did.
So up he stepped in the sixth, first base open, looking for a pitch to hit off reliever David Hale, who’d mercifully replaced starter and three-time victim James Paxton. First pitch, a 95-m.p.h. fastball over the plate, fouled back. Second pitch, an 83-m.p.h. curveball in the dirt, ball one. Third pitch, another 83-m.p.h. curve. Betts sliced his bat through the zone.
The crowd gasped.
And then it exhaled, like a deflated balloon.
Not nearly enough loft to get out, the ball instead headed on a line to left field. The double scored Michael Chavis with the Sox’ eighth run of the night, gave Betts those 14 total bases, and was even celebrated by the man himself with a signature (if mini) shimmy. One more at-bat in the eighth brought a ground ball out to third, and while it may have ruined the perfect night in a statistical sense, it ended a perfect night in a more heartfelt way.
Betts had spent batting practice hosting a young fan through the Make-a-Wish foundation, a fan who said he’d like nothing more than to see a home run.
“I don’t know if he promised anything, but if he did promise one, it was a great night for everyone involved,” Cora said.
Especially for Betts.