<
>

Dominant 20: One magical, midseason at-bat showed how Mookie Betts morphed into an MVP

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Mookie Betts is No. 14 on ESPN The Magazine's list of the most dominant athletes of the year. Click here for more on the Dominant 20, which also includes Mike Trout, at No. 20.

It's July 12 at Fenway Park, and Mookie Betts' Boston Red Sox are down 2-1 in the bottom of the fourth to the Toronto Blue Jays. Toronto starter J.A. Happ has loaded the bases with two outs -- and the best player on baseball's best team is staring him down from 60 feet away. After three pitches, Betts finds himself in a two-strike hole. For a moment, the 25-year-old looks like his more tentative 2017 self: He's taken the first meaty fastball for a strike (though manager Alex Cora has warned him not to take good pitches) and flailed wildly at the second fastball in the zone, which he missed and which sent him staggering across the plate. With two strikes last year, Betts would have pressed, concerned only about putting bat on ball.

This is a different Mookie Betts. Mookie 2.0 fouls off Happ's next six offerings -- including an 88 mph changeup away that would likely have ended the at-bat last season. After Happ puts a pitch in the dirt, Betts fouls off another one. In his downtime, Betts studies videos of his old at-bats with hitting coach Tim Hyers, who has urged him to slow down his swing, get the ball in the air, be more aggressive. "When the pitcher makes a mistake, let's be ready to attack it," Hyers tells Betts in those sessions. And attack he has: 4-for-4 against the New York Yankees in April; three-homer games against the Los Angeles Angels and Kansas City Royals; a 1.200 OPS in May. "My job in this lineup is to swing the bat," says Betts, who constantly grills -- and does extra hitting drills with­ -- teammate J.D. Martinez, known for his unrelenting pursuit of the perfect stroke.

Betts fouls off Happ's 11th pitch, then watches the 12th bounce in the dirt to push the count full. The player with weak spots in 2017 will hit .300 by the end of 2018 -- and have an otherworldly .922 OPS -- with two strikes against him, an MLB best. When the pressure is on, the new Mookie Betts doesn't back down.

Happ's final pitch is a 95 mph fastball, inner half of the plate, bottom of the strike zone. The ball launches off Betts' bat and reaches 108.3 mph before it rockets over the Green Monster, out of Fenway and onto Lansdowne Street. The usually reserved Betts screams and pumps his arms. Boston is up 5-2 and will go on to win 6-4.

On the schedule, this is simply game 95. For Betts, it's the moment that announces him as a true threat to Mike Trout's throne as MLB's best player.