The starting second baseman for Team USA took his position Thursday to do some work a few hours before the first pitch against the Angels and he looked good.
He grounded out fluently. He threw pitches from various arm angles. He moved to the middle, to the shortstop bag side and back to shallow right field, all the places he could find himself during the World Baseball Classic.
Mookie Betts showed up at home because second base was ever at home.
“It’s in my roots,” Betts, 30, said Thursday. “It’s what I grew up doing and it’s hard to get rid of it.”
The Boston Red Sox selected Betts in the fifth round of the 2011 draft out of high school as a second baseman. He played there, with occasional starts at shortstop, his first two full minor league seasons. Then, in 2014, the Red Sox, with Dustin Pedroia entrenched at second base, turned Betts into the outfield of the minors.
He’s been on the Hall of Fame track as a right fielder ever since, racking up six All-Star Game appearances, six Gold Glove Awards, two World Series titles, an MVP award, and one of the richest contracts in baseball history. professional sport on the road.
But Betts’ time as a second baseman never ended. He’s moonlighting at the position in the majors: He started 11 games and logged 100 innings in his first three seasons with the Dodgers, and his time there looks to grow in 2023.
Team USA manager Mark DeRosa confirmed that Betts will occasionally play second base during the tournament to spell out starter Jeff McNeil. Betts is also expected to play more second base for the Dodgers this season after shortstop Gavin Lux’s season-ending knee injury affected the club’s midfield depth.
“My brain is more focused on that,” Betts said, comparing second base to right field, where he started for the US against the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday. “There are certain complexities that make you a good right fielder. You’re just not on every play and all, like you’re in the middle of the infield.
“But I definitely enjoy playing well. I don’t want it to look like I don’t enjoy it. I love going out there and playing and trying to be the best I can be.”
In preparation for his dual role, Betts participated in on-field and field exercises during Team USA’s first practice session Tuesday. DeRosa had heard of Betts’ infield prowess. Seeing him was another story.
“I’m impressed by his preparation, to be honest with you,” DeRosa said. “Seeing him in the first two practices, he can certainly handle it.”
Team USA shortstop Trea Turner and third base coach Dino Ebel already knew that. Turner watched Betts work second base before nearly every game over the past season and a half as Dodgers teammates. A superstar right fielder, talented basketball player and professional bowler, he quickly realized that Betts was a skilled infielder.
“I’m not surprised because he’s good at everything,” Turner said. “He’s a weirdo.”
Ebel, the Dodgers’ third base and infield coach, has directed most of Betts’ work in his three years as a Dodger, hitting him with shrooms and putting him through knee exercises. He’s convinced that Betts would win a Gold Glove if he focused solely on second base. For now, he thinks Betts is good enough to handle the position, so he lobbied Team USA officials to have him play there in the WBC.
“He has eye-hand coordination,” Ebel said. “He moves his feet well. He reads the spin of the ball. He just he has all the instincts of baseball and he is a great athlete who adapts well.
Betts was immediately tested in the first inning on Thursday; he turned a 5-4-3 double play with no trouble. That came moments after he singled as the second hitter for Team USA. He singled again in the third inning before being pulled. He was three-for-three with two walks in Team USA’s exhibition games.
“It looked natural there,” said Team USA center fielder Mike Trout. “He can play anywhere on the field, maybe not receiver.”
The talent will be on display on the fledgling WBC stage, one of the few unchecked boxes left in Betts’ career, for the first time since Saturday against Great Britain.
In a way, the tournament will be a return to life before stardom. A return to second base. A return to No. 3, his high school basketball number, because veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright called dibs at No. 50.
A return to his roots.