Dodgers takeaways: Mookie Betts rediscovers MVP form; Julio Urías outduels Juan Soto

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Los Angeles Dodgers' Mookie Betts celebrates his home run with Justin Turner (10), Hanser Alberto (17) and others during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Dodgers' Mookie Betts celebrates after one of his two home runs against the Washington Nationals on Tuesday. (Nick Wass / Associated Press)

It’s been a while since Mookie Betts last felt like, played like or simply looked quite like this.

It wasn’t last year, when he was inconsistent and battled a nagging hip injury. It wasn’t even in 2020, during a dazzling debut season with the Dodgers that ended with a World Series championship.

But things changed this past month. Since April 27 he has a slash line of .354/.420/.737 and the last two weeks he has seven doubles, seven home and 17 RBIs in 13 games with a .400 batting average. It has been reminiscent of his MVP-winning performance in 2018 with the Boston Red Sox, making the perennial All-Star look once again like one of the game’s elite all-around players.

“He’s getting on base. He’s slugging. He’s playing MVP-type baseball,” manager Dave Roberts said after Betts’ two home runs Tuesday, which helped the Dodgers clinch the series against the Washington Nationals. “He really is.”

Betts acknowledged it, too.

He knows his recent numbers harked back to his best career season, when he hit .346 with 32 home runs, 80 RBIs, 30 steals and Gold Glove defense in his age-25 campaign.

But more importantly, he’s starting to feel the same way he did then.

“I had to sit back and remember who I was and who I can be now,” said Betts, who has been open about the self-doubts he had during his injury-plagued, career-worst 2021 year, and amid his opening-month slump this season.

Mookie Betts holds up one finger as he runs the bases.
Mookie Betts rounds the bases after hitting a home run Tuesday against Washington. (Nick Wass / Associated Press)

“You really don’t want to look too far in the past and try to be that guy, you just want to be in the moment and be who you are now,” Betts said. “But I had to take a look back and see what I was capable of — just remind myself what I’m capable of and just have fun and do it.”

As a result, Betts has catapulted himself into the early-season MVP discussion this year.

After owning a .190 batting average with just two home runs a month ago, here is where Betts ranked among National League hitters entering Thursday: Tied for first in home runs (12), first in runs scored (44), ninth in RBIs (30), fourth in OPS (.957), second in wins above replacement (2.7).

Not that Betts, whose batting average is up to .290 now, wanted to pay much attention.

“The numbers are going to be the numbers,” he said. “They’re going to go up, they’re gonna go down, they’re going to be whatever. It’s just have fun and play and let the numbers be the numbers at the end of the year.”

It’s still early, but if he maintains this level of play, he could be positioned for some awards at season’s end.

Here are three other takeaways on Betts and the Dodgers.

Teammates in awe of Betts, too

Tuesday was one of Betts’ best games of the season. He had two home runs. He reached base four times. He drove in four runs. And he again set the tone as the leadoff hitter for baseball’s best offense.

He didn’t overly-indulge in postgame plaudits — “just pretty normal,” he said when asked of his confidence level — but his teammates sure did.

A sampling of what has stood out most to them from Betts’ recent tear.

Shortstop Trea Turner: “The power. It feels like everything he hits is an extra-base hit. Even his outs are loud. … Just the consistency, man, it’s really good, really special.”

Left fielder Chris Taylor: “He’s locked in right now. He’s one of the best, if not the best player there is. When he’s feeling good, it’s fun to watch.”

Third baseman Justin Turner: “I don’t want to call it a stretch, because it’s just the player he’s capable of being. The at-bat quality is off the charts. The strike zone command is off the charts. And when he’s getting mistakes, he’s doing damage.”

The Dodgers have been among MLB’s highest-scoring teams all year. But with Betts’ outbreak, and May upticks from Freddie Freeman and Trea Turner behind him in the batting order, the Dodgers are starting to cement themselves as the league’s biggest early-season juggernaut at the plate. The Dodgers are currently leading the majors in runs per game (5.49) and also OPS (.751).

Urías finding a rhythm

Dodgers starting pitcher Julio Urias throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals
Dodgers pitcher Julio Urias gave up one run in six innings against Washington on Wednesday. (Nick Wass / Associated Press)

On the heels of two of his worst starts this season earlier this month against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies, Julio Urías has responded on this trip with two of his best outings.

After cruising through a rematch against the Phillies over the weekend, when he threw five scoreless innings and gave up just two hits, Urías yielded just one run in six innings against the Washington Nationals on Wednesday.

The left-hander now has a 2.49 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. He is finding increased consistency in his changeup (which induced almost nothing but soft contact Wednesday) and his curveball (which he landed for strikes against the Nationals). And he feels like he’s found a rhythm on the mound.

“I made the adjustments that I wanted to come in making on this road trip,” Urías said through an interpreter Wednesday. “They’re working out really well.”

One piece of evidence was Urías’ eight-pitch at bat against Nationals star Juan Soto in the sixth inning Wednesday.

Urías got ahead early. Soto stayed alive by fouling off four pitches. A low changeup evened the count at 2-and-2. Then, Urías snapped off a late-breaking curveball that began off the inside edge before diving back across the plate.

Soto froze for a called third strike, flashing a “you got me” smile at Urías as he walked back to the dugout.

“It’s one of those at-bats that’s a lot of fun,” Urías said. “The back-and-forth, you’re smiling at each other. You’re giving your best, he’s giving his best, … Luckily today I got the best of him.”

Buehler still tinkering with fastball

Dodgers coaches believed Walker Buehler found a couple effective tweaks in a between-starts bullpen session last week, especially to a fastball that hasn’t been as effective as usual this season.

The results in his start against the Nationals, however, continued to be mixed.

Three of the six hits he allowed in his six-inning, three-run (two-earned) start came against the four-seamer, with the other three on two sinkers and a cutter.

A pitch that once induced whiffs on one out of every four swings failed to miss a single bat in the game, with the Nationals making contact all 11 times they swung at it.

“They got on him early,” Roberts said. “They got on the heater when he was trying to settle into the game.”

Thanks to a greater reliance on his secondary pitches, Buehler is still off to a good start. He improved to 6-1 in the Tuesday start, has a 2.91 ERA in nine starts and is logging the most innings on the Dodgers staff.

But his heater — which had arguably been Buehler’s most important pitch prior to this year and could be the biggest key to his rediscovering peak form — is still yielding a .367 batting average and .567 slugging percentage to opponents, far and away the highest marks of his career.

“He’s still just trying to figure things out a little bit with the fastball,” Prior said before Tuesday’s game. “Trying to figure out how to get it to play like it was last year.”

Prior said the right-hander adjusted some of his mechanics in last week’s bullpen session and also tinkered with his pitch sequencing to “play each [pitch] off each other.”

“I think overall it still comes back a little bit to some of his delivery, which has been inconsistent by his standards,” Prior said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.