ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Mookie Betts, feeling so lost at the plate he’s started looking to Alex Cora during the middle of at-bats for affirmation, finally got a pitch he couldn’t miss.
It was timely. It was well-struck. And it broke a tie in the eighth inning to lift the Red Sox to a borderline-desperate win, 6-4, over the first-place Rays, who entered the day with MLB’s best record at 14-5.
The Red Sox moved to 7-13, cut their deficit in the East to seven and finally have a chance to win their first series of the season over the weekend.
“We know where we are in the standings,” said Cora. “But it’s more about that we have two shots to win the series. Step by step. Let’s not get get ahead of ourselves. But we have a chance to win the series. That feels good.”
It was a day of good feelings for a team that badly needed them.
First they learned that Dustin Pedroia’s knee injury wasn’t as bad as they feared. Then they watched Eduardo Rodriguez take another step forward with an outing deemed “outstanding” by Cora afterward.
But what they needed more than anything was to see their best player having a little bit of fun again.
“I think everybody in here, except for maybe him, knows it’s coming,” said Mitch Moreland. “Nobody in here is as worried about as him as he is. He’s the best player in the game in our eyes. It’s only a matter of time before he gets it rolling.”
The look on Betts’ face as he rounded first after his eighth-inning home run was less joy than relief. He pumped his fist twice around first, touched second, pumped his fist again, touched third and did it one more time on the way to home.
“A lot of emotions going through my head there,” he said. “The main thing was that it put us ahead.”
The reigning MVP entered Friday without an extra-base hit in seven straight games, tied for his longest such streak since 2017. It was starting to get to him. Last Monday, after a tough day at the plate contributed to the Sox’ missing a chance to win a series against the lowly Orioles, Betts proclaimed his play “unacceptable.” It didn’t get much better in two games against the Yankees, when he went 0-for-7 in a series sweep.
“I’m the first one to hit every day,” he said Friday. “I put in my work. It just hasn’t shown. But it’s definitely not from a lack of effort.”
He started this one vs. the Rays 0-for-2 at the plate. Then he punched a full-count double to get himself going in the sixth inning, when he yanked a slider down the left-field line and later scored as the Sox took a 4-2 lead.
That hit right there “definitely felt like a weight came off my shoulders,” he said.
It should’ve been good enough, with Rodriguez pitching confidently and the bullpen well-rested with Thursday’s off-day.
Except that Devers, in his third big league season, keeps making rookie mistakes in the field. He made such a difficult play look easy in the fifth inning, rolling over a hot shot to his left and sending it quickly to second base for a buttery-smooth double play.
But he made such a routine play look difficult in the sixth, when Rodriguez put a double play on a platter for Devers, who let it roll through his legs. Daniel Robertson hit a two-run double to tie the game and the 2019 Red Sox appeared ready to outdo themselves with another loss that looked too gross to stomach.
Then finally, at long last the game’s best player awoke. He watched as Rays flamethrower Diego Castillo threw him two balls off the plate to start the at-bat in the eighth. Ever so patient — perhaps too patient this year — Betts watched again on a 2-0 fastball down the pipe, a pitch he should’ve hammered.
But Castillo gave him another one, 97 mph and sinking over the heart of the plate. Betts handled it perfectly.
Not too hard, not too soft, just a simple swing that used the pitcher’s speed to send it straight over the center-field fence. It left his bat at an unassuming 103 mph, just 6 mph faster than it came in.
“It’s just one but it’s definitely a starting point,” Betts said. “The main thing was I helped, in some way, today.”
Hitting coach Tim Hyers has been saying Betts needs to use less body and trust his hands. After the game, Hyers was asked if Betts used less body on that home run swing.
“I don’t know,” Hyers said, “but it was a bomb.”
Betts entered the game hitting .200 with a .676 OPS through 19 games. He ripped off his helmet after crossing home plate and soaked in the moment with high-fives and hugs in the dugout. Mitch Moreland went deep right behind him to give the Sox’ bullpen a much safer two-run lead.
Inside the dugout, they were still celebrating Betts’ homer.
“When you look around in big league stadiums, you look everywhere, there’s the average,” Cora said. “Back in the day, you didn’t have that. You only learned because of the newspaper. Now it’s all over the place. Although you don’t want to look, it’s there for you. It’s not cool when you’re struggling. It’s hard to smile when you’re struggling.
“But he prepares, gives 100 percent regardless of the results. Sometimes, yeah he gets down, because he knows what he can do. But just like the team, it’s a long season. Still got plenty of games. Good to see him doing that.”
It could be the beginning of a hot streak.
“We’re about to see,” Cora said. “I’ve been saying, we’re getting close.”
Inside the clubhouse, the Sox feel it from their MVP.
“We know who he is,” Rodriguez said. “We know he’s not hitting the ball good right not but when he gets hot, it’s going to be hot. You’re going to see that show every day.”