Red Sox

Mookie Betts blasts desperately needed homer, but what really mattered was his reaction

Mookie Betts blasts desperately needed homer, but what really mattered was his reaction

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.

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Benching Jackie Bradley was never an option, but first homer of season reminds us what he can be

Benching Jackie Bradley was never an option, but first homer of season reminds us what he can be

It took nearly two months, but on Monday Jackie Bradley's drought finally ended.

The Gold Glove center fielder, mired in a historically brutal slump even by his standards, launched his first home run of the year in a 12-2 pounding of the Blue Jays. His opposite-field shot in the sixth played no role in the outcome -- the Red Sox were already cruising to victory -- but the badly needed blast came with more of us questioning his place in the everyday lineup.

Bradley entered the game hitting .144 with no homers and only four extra-base hits. For someone coming off a strong second half and excellent postseason that included the American League Championship Series MVP award, Bradley's season-long funk felt particularly demoralizing.

While we've always accepted streakiness as part of the package, it really did feel like he had turned a corner last year. He began consulting with J.D. Martinez's personal hitting coach around the All-Star break and in the second half delivered some of the most consistent offense of his career, batting .269 with an .827 OPS. He followed by posting a .943 OPS between the ALCS and World Series, driving in 10 runs in 10 games with three homers and a double.

He arrived at spring training confident in a new swing that would end his streakiness once and for all, and in a sense he was right, because there have been no streaks to speak of, just struggle upon struggle.

But Bradley's path forward is actually deceptively simple. It's easy to forget that he only hit .200 last postseason, because virtually all of his production was pivotal, but it showed the way he could validate his existence from an offensive standpoint: hit for power and his place in the lineup would be secure.

When he opened this season by failing to homer in his first 38 games, however, concerns over his viability began gaining urgency. How long could the Red Sox carry an everyday player who wasn't even hitting .150, let alone .200, no matter how game-changing his glove?

Replacing him isn't as easy as it sounds, though, which is why he's not going anywhere. One option would be to make Martinez a more frequent outfielder and move Andrew Benintendi to center, but the DH has battled back issues and is an average defender at best. The Red Sox need his bat in the lineup, not his glove.

The other would require toppling dominoes that would leave the Red Sox worse than where they started: bench Bradley, move Benintendi to center, try power-hitting youngster Michael Chavis in left, and then fill second base with Eduardo Nunez, Tzu-Wei Lin, Dustin Pedroia, or Brock Holt, depending on who's healthy.

Their averages range from .063 (Holt) to .200 (Lin), so you'd be leaving yourself in the same position offensively, but weakened defensively at two positions. The same logic applies to putting Steve Pearce (.131) in left.

In that context, there's little incentive to bench Bradley, which is why he has appeared in all but eight games. It helps that every regular except Benintendi now owns an OPS of greater than .800, so there's enough offense to go around. The emergence of Chavis and Christian Vazquez lower in the order has saved Bradley from answering some seriously tough questions.

So forget about benching him. A far more palatable option is that Bradley rediscovers his power stroke, maintains a solid eye (16 walks), and keeps making web gems.

Maybe Monday represented a tentative first step in that direction.

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David Price continues historic crazy dominance against the Blue Jays

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USA TODAY Sports Photo

David Price continues historic crazy dominance against the Blue Jays

There was probably no better opponent for David Price to face in his first start since May 2 than the Blue Jays — and probably no better place to do it than Rogers Centre.

Price has always fared well against Toronto, and that trend continued Monday afternoon, as he pitched three-hit ball over five innings to earn his first win in over a month (April 14). Price allowed a two-run homer to the Jays' Luke Maile, but that was his only blemish, and thanks to a Michael Chavis error earlier that inning, both runs he allowed were unearned.

With the victory, Price is now a ridiculous 22-3 against the Jays over his career, with a 2.37 ERA in 31 appearances (30 starts). According to ESPN Stats & Info, that's the best win percentage by any player all-time against Toronto with a minimum of 15 starts — and the second-best win percentage by any active player against any franchise (Anibal Sanchez is 10-1 vs. the Nationals).

"I enjoy this mound. Feels close to home plate. It's just one of the places I enjoy throwing," said Price, who is now 13-1 with a 3.17 in his career at Rogers Centre. "I felt better as the game went on. The last couple innings were more efficient than the first two or three."

Price retired the final 10 batters he faced after the Maile long ball, and he wasn't kidding about the efficiency, as he needed just five pitches to complete a 1-2-3 fourth inning. Not bad for his first start in 18 days.

"I don't think it matters what time of year it is, or how long of a layoff, or whatever the case is; I expect to go out there and execute pitches, make pitches, and get outs."

Because of the long layoff, Alex Cora took Price out after five innings, despite the fact that his pitch count was only at 67.

"Obviously he hasn't pitched in a while, so just taking care of him," said Cora after the game. "Pitch count was low, the effort was great. The last two innings, velocity-wise and location-wise was fun to watch, so he'll be ready for his next one. But it was cool to have him back."

Price still isn't the all-time leader in wins against the Blue Jays, as Mike Mussina (25-12), Andy Pettitte (25-14), and Roger Clemens (24-12) are all ahead of him for now. But with 16 more games against the Jays this season, Price could vault up that list by October.

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