Red Sox

Red Sox

The swing looked vintage. The fist pump around the bases felt like a dam bursting.

But for my money, the most encouraging aspect of Mookie Betts' go-ahead homer to center on Friday night was his ear-to-ear grin in the dugout.

Sounds corny, but we haven't seen much in the way of happiness from Betts this season. Mired in a slump that dates to the 2018 postseason, the defending MVP has spent April trying to find his way, with limited success.

On Friday night, however, he showed signs of life. Not coincidentally, so did the Red Sox, taking an embarrassingly important 6-4 victory from the division-leading Rays in the opener of a three-game series at Tropicana Field.

After grounding into a double play as the second batter of the game and seeing his average fall to .197, Betts found his groove. He doubled to left leading off the sixth and scored on a J.D. Martinez single. Then he unloaded on a 97-mph, dead-red fastball in the eighth of off Diego Castillo to break a 4-4 tie, slamming it 424 feet to center.

Betts pumped his fist once around second, once as he neared third, and once again as he turned towards home plate. He may not have exhibited the exuberance of, say, his joyous race around the bases after his marathon at-bat grand slam against J.A. Happ last year, but he at least looked more like himself in the dugout.

He ran the high-five gauntlet before breaking into a broad smile, which he repeated moments later at the bat rack.

 

That's the Betts the Red Sox want to see. That's the Betts the Red Sox need to see. The season hasn't started the way anyone wants, but it's not like it's over.

"When you look around in big league stadiums and there's a lot of -- look everywhere, there's the average," manager Alex Cora told reporters in Florida, including Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald. "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."

Betts takes his struggles very seriously, which is why he termed his play unacceptable last week. The concept of a short memory doesn't always apply. He wears it when things aren't going well, and he'll work himself to exhaustion trying to make it right.

He needed to feel rewarded.

"He keeps working," Cora told reporters. "He was hitting .380 or .400 last year and kept working the same way. He tries to be the best out there. He showed up today and worked his swing and didn't start the right way, but the double, then he crushed that pitch. It's good to see him contribute."

Cora has insisted for the last week that a hitter as talented as Betts can turn things around with just one swing. Who knows? 
Maybe this was the one.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.