Mookie Betts is putting together one of the greatest seasons in baseball history by a leadoff batter.
So is Ronald Acuña Jr.
Who is better? It’s like comparing filet mignon to ribeye, fundamentally similar but very different in nuance.
And sometimes, a humble side dish can obscure the main course. Orlando Arcia, the Atlanta Braves‘ No. 8 hitter, swatted a three-run home run off reliever Alex Vesia in the 10th inning, handing the Dodgers a 4-2 loss, their third in a row in a series billed as a potential preview of the National League Championship Series.
The Dodgers had two early opportunities to break the game open, but Betts and Will Smith, two hitters they rely on for consistent production, failed to come through.
Betts missed an opportunity to join Charlie Blackmon (103 in 2017) and Darin Erstad (100 RBIs in 2000) as the only leadoff hitters ever to reach triple figures in RBIs when he struck out with the bases loaded and two out in the fourth inning.
Betts, whose 51 hits in August set a franchise record for a calendar month, has driven in 98 runs. But he chased two pitches out of the strike zone before being called out by umpire Mark Ripperger on a pitch about an inch outside.
That episode occurred one inning after Acuña hammered the ball harder than anyone has all season, ambushing a 3-0 fastball by Dodgers rookie Emmet Sheehan that left the yard at 121.4 mph.
“I saw the numbers, pretty crazy,” Sheehan said when asked if the low line drive came close to hitting his head on the way out of the park. “It sounded like a jet engine going by.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said it was the hardest hit ball he’s ever seen.
“I didn’t think that was possible,” he said.
The homer was the only run given up by Sheehan in four innings, and he departed with the score tied 1-1 after the Dodgers failed to do much with an earlier bases-loaded opportunity in the third.
A leadoff double by Austin Barnes was followed by walks to Betts and Freddie Freeman, bringing up Smith with none out. He grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, which scored Barnes but blunted a chance at a big inning.
“I thought we hit some balls hard with runners on base and they didn’t get through and we couldn’t push runs across,” Smith said.
Smith, who typically bats third behind Betts and Freeman, has struggled against fastballs and experienced a power outage for two months. Neither he nor Roberts attribute the dip in production to the ardors of catching nearly every game. Smith was the designated hitter Saturday with Barnes behind the plate.
“I’ve talked to him many times over about how he’s feeling,” Roberts said. “It’s not wear and tear, it’s not fatigue, but I do think that getting him a DH day where he doesn’t have to worry about putting down fingers is a mental break, and also allows him to take four at-bats.”
Smith isn’t in a deep slump, he just isn’t delivering like a No. 3 hitter is expected to do. He entered the game with the highest on-base-plus-slugging percentage among qualifying catchers at .821.
“There are catchers across the league that catch as much as he does,” Roberts said. “He’s in his prime, he takes good care of himself. So I just don’t think wear and tear is the reason he’s not on the fastball.
“We still expect him to take walks and drive in runs. To hit third in any lineup, production is important.”
Most of the Dodgers skipped batting practice before the game, but Smith and a few teammates hit off a pitching machine to simulate game velocity.
“I do think in Will’s particular case, there are some things with his setup that have caused him to be late on the fastball,” Roberts said. “[Coaches] are trying to clean it up. So, it’s been a little better of late.”
The Dodgers need production from Smith and others or risk becoming too dependent on Betts and Freeman, who along with Acuña are vying for the National League most valuable player award.
Betts struck out three times Saturday and Freeman struck out out twice. The Dodgers, who scored only on an eighth-inning three-run home run by newcomer Kolten Wong on Friday, are three for 24 with runners in scoring position in the three losses.
Max Muncy‘s sacrifice fly with one out and two on in the 10th scored the Dodgers’ second run, but Amed Rosario struck out to end the game. With the series finale looming Sunday, Muncy cautioned against making too much of the losses.
“You can’t take too much out of it because if we face them in the postseason it’s going to be completely different games,” he said. “It’s an exciting series right now and a lot of fun for people to watch, but at the end of the day, it’s not going to be the same as the playoffs.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.