Three homers show us Mookie Betts' swing is back in MVP form

BOSTON -- Mookie Betts admits this regularly: He hasn't remotely lived up to his own expectations so far this season. At the depths of his struggles earlier in the year, when the reigning American League MVP's batting average dipped as low as .260 after reaching .346 in 2018, Betts struggled to find his swing, failing to turn on pitches. Fly balls popping out to right field became common sights during Betts' at-bats in the first half of the season, and Red Sox fans openly wondered what had happened to Boston's offensive catalyst.

As concerns around Betts permeated throughout the season's first half, the team struggled to put together consistent offensive production. Betts told ESPN.com earlier this season that he spent much of the 2018 season reinventing his swing with the input of teammate J.D. Martinez. This year, he'd found maintaining that swing to be much easier said than done.

"Last year, I feel like I was working towards something, building a new swing," Betts said in June.

A three-homer night might be enough to finally silence talk concerning whether Betts will come back around. He has found that swing again, as Betts' three shots off of New York Yankees left-hander James Paxton showed Friday, finishing the evening 4-for-5 with four runs, a double, 5 RBIs and a career-high 14 total bases in a 10-5 victory. It's only the eighth time a Red Sox hitter has recorded 14 total bases or more in a game. Betts extended the longest on-base streak in the American League to 23 games, during which he's hitting .383/.464/.670 with five homers and 10 doubles, raising his overall line to .289/.399/.507. On the season, Betts has struggled against lefties, hitting .236/.352/.330 after hitting .368/.471/.736 against southpaws last season, so breaking out in a Paxton start was a nice additional development.

"I don't necessarily know what was different tonight," Betts said after the game. "I just hadn't really been playing well this year. There's a lot of work going on behind the scenes. It's just a matter of showing it in the game."

Manager Alex Cora said Betts hasn't felt good at the plate all season.

"He's been fighting his mechanics," Cora said. "He's crushed balls to right-center, center field with nothing to show for it. Today, he was able to get some pitches that probably a few days ago or a week ago that were deep fly balls to center."

Boston's lineup has struggled with inconsistent performance all season. Despite the team ranking among the AL leaders in offensive production, Cora has routinely expressed his frustration with the Red Sox bats not coming through in timely situations. The top of the lineup has seen some reshuffling. Cora entered the season with left fielder Andrew Benintendi in the leadoff spot, followed by Betts in the 2-hole, in line with sabermetric trends in the game to have a team's best hitter hit second. Betts now finds himself back in the leadoff spot, where he spent all of last year.

"You just can't quit," Betts said. "It's a long season, and things can turn around fast. I was determined to get things rolling and try to be that catalyst at the top for [Rafael] Devers and Bogey [Xander Bogaerts], who've had amazing years. If I can score some runs, I know we can string together some wins."

Boston already ranked among the best offensive teams in baseball in the first half, hitting .272/.336/.497 over the course of the first half, tied for the most runs in baseball with the Minnesota Twins, but Betts' recent tear at the plate is having a clear impact on the bottom line. After Friday's win, the Red Sox have improved upon their status as the baseball's hottest offense in July, hitting .297/.357/.535 with an MLB-best 148 runs scored.

The climb out of the pits of his slump meant Betts has been spending time watching extra film, coming in early for batting practice and asking for advice from the coaching staff and teammates. Of course, a down year for Betts is a career year for most players, as he still rates among the top 20 position players in baseball in FanGraphs WAR at 3.5.

"Mookie's always been the same Mookie," Chris Sale told Boston media last week. "I couldn't imagine what it's like winning MVP and having to show up the next year and having to do it again. We all know what he's capable of. He's been unbelievable for us the entire year. I know he's not hitting .370 like he was last year, but I don't think we need him to."

Before watching his star outfielder hit three homers, Cora approached Betts during batting practice to check in. As his star has been heating up, he has been asking the team's right fielder for some predictions. Betts hasn't been able to come up with answers, which is always a good sign for Cora in regard to the reigning MVP.

"He keeps telling me, 'I don't know what happened,'" Cora said. "I'm glad that's his answer, because last year, he never really thought about anything. Just go out there and compete and perform, and today was a great one."