Hernández: Mookie Betts definitely still cares. And he knows he can't disappear in playoffs again

Mookie Betts cares. He really cares, and he doesn’t understand why anyone would think otherwise.

“I don’t know where that came from,” Betts said.

A seven-time All-Star who is in the fourth year of a 12-year, $365-million contract, Betts is one of the most gifted athletes in baseball. He’s also a world-class bowler and part-time podcaster, a World Series television correspondent and a fervent basketball fan who makes regular visits to Crypto.com Arena. When he flails the way he did in the playoffs last year, it’s bound to raise suspicions that he’s distracted or not entirely invested in the sport in which he makes his living.

“I played four sports growing up,” Betts protested. “I’m just used to switching gears.”

There are times Betts looks like the best player in baseball, as was the case when he led the Dodgers to their only championship in the last 36 years, in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Betts dominated the playoffs that year, winning games not only with his hitting but also with his defense and baserunning.

However, Betts is also prone to extended periods in which he completely disappears. The extreme fluctuations in performance, coupled with his relatively low-key demeanor, have made even some of his teammates question his commitment.

Last season was another example. Betts was the runner-up in voting for the most valuable player award but went hitless against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Division Series. The Dodgers, who won 100 games in the regular season, were swept in three games.

“That’s when I didn’t show up. I didn’t do anything to help the team.”

— Mookie Betts, on his performance in the NLDS last year

“I may not have hit well, I may not have played well,” Betts said. “This game is hard.

“It’s not that I don’t care.”

Of course Betts cares. A player who didn’t care wouldn’t be as fundamentally sound. A player who didn’t care wouldn’t learn to read how balls deflect off walls, as Betts did when he was a Gold Glove right fielder. A player who didn’t care wouldn’t be able to move to the infield at age 30, as Betts did last year.

Not convinced? Listen to Betts reflect on last season.

When he reported to spring training Monday, he sounded as if he was still bothered by his memories of October.

“That’s when I didn’t show up,” Betts said. “I didn’t do anything to help the team. I know I take great pride in doing what I can to help the team.”

Mookie Betts sits in the dugout during Game 2 of the NLDS against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Oct. 9.

Mookie Betts sits in the dugout during Game 2 of the NLDS against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Oct. 9.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Betts didn’t view the season as an entire waste, pointing to a regular season in which the Dodgers won 100 games and he batted .307 with a career-high 39 home runs and 107 RBIs as a leadoff hitter.

“Also had a pretty good stretch, played pretty well last year,” he said. “Obviously, not when it mattered. I gotta give myself a little pat on the back, say good job, but also know that I gotta come and show up when it matters.”

Betts said he didn’t want to sulk about his postseason troubles or let his disappointment affect his interactions with his children, but he followed up each of those statements, and others like them, with a similar declaration: He has to show up when the games matter most.

Even a question about taking advantage of a window in which Betts, Shohei Ohtani and Freddie Freeman will be in their respective primes led Betts to the same conclusion.

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“I mean, yeah,” Betts said. “But again, you have to go play, man. We’ve had some guys in their prime here and we haven’t done it. No matter what team we roll out there, we have to go play. I have to show up. I went 0 for 11 and we had a really good team last year. So if I don’t show up, it doesn’t matter. Not just me, but all of us. If we don’t show up, we’re going to lose.”

He was already in hibernation when the playoffs started, as his catastrophic October was preceded by a difficult September. He batted .244 and homered only once over his last 25 regular-season games, which eliminated him from MVP consideration.

Betts didn’t know why he suddenly stopped hitting, but manager Dave Roberts had a theory.

“I think there was a little bit of chasing 40 homers,” Roberts said.

Betts was clearly affected by what happened in the NLDS, according to the manager.

“It was hard on him,” Roberts said. “There’s only a handful of people that probably have that sense of responsibility of a superstar player. So when you don’t come through or deliver, you feel that burden or disappointment or frustration, whatever that might be.

“He cares. Mookie cares.”

Betts cares enough to acknowledge the problem. He cares enough to recognize the problem has existed for some time now, as he’s three for 38 over his last 10 playoffs games, a stretch that spans three postseasons. He cares enough to try to do something about it, even if he isn’t certain what he has to do differently.

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