LOS ANGELES — Dave Roberts considers himself a baseball fan first, but he’s biased. He sat in the home dugout Thursday afternoon and laid out four compelling cases for the National League’s MVP, each of whom were set to take the field. In some order, be it Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman or Matt Olson, the top four vote-getters for the award were at Dodger Stadium. So, take your pick.
“One of the Dodger players,” the Los Angeles manager said with a smirk.
There is a month left to go for baseball’s best two clubs. They are still jockeying for the top seed in the National League and, with it, home-field advantage throughout the postseason — the Atlanta Braves bolstered their advantage to five games with Thursday’s 8-7 win. Each is playing out the final month almost as a trial run, the last few tests before the pay-per-view bout that are as much about ensuring you get to October in good position as they are about racking up wins — no matter how stressful the ninth inning is.
But there is this, a chance to rev themselves up to postseason gear if only for a few nights. Two titans clashing and the theater of an MVP race featuring the electricity that Betts and Acuña provided Thursday night.
“Atmospheres like this,” Betts said, “are what make baseball fun.”
“I’d say tonight lived up to it,” third baseman Max Muncy said.
MOOKIE AGAIN! pic.twitter.com/oOWwdDeGDd
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) September 1, 2023
What Freeman is doing, as one of three players ever to rack up at least 25 homers and 50 doubles before the calendar flipped to September, is remarkable. His consistency is the Dodgers’ metronome.
Olson is in the midst of a career year, pacing the National League in home runs and RBIs while playing steady defense at first base.
Acuña has been the story because of course he’s been. In a year that has seen the rebirth of the stolen base, he has swiped 62 of them. His presence on the bases as well as in the batter’s box is unnerving. When Lance Lynn walked in a run with the bases loaded in the second inning Thursday, Acuña was the hitter in the stacked Atlanta lineup most poised to punish him. He crushed Lynn’s elevated fastball and admired his work as he bat-flipped his way into history. No player in major-league history had stolen at least 60 bases and hit at least 30 home runs, yet Acuña had seemingly laid out such a plan since he arrived at spring training.
“Sixty bases, 30 homers, .340 average,” Betts said. “Just look at his stats. It’s self-explanatory as far as how dynamic he is. He changed the game today, for sure.”
It would take a lot to suddenly make the MVP race a conversation again. Betts has done even more than that. He had a .958 OPS in May. A 1.037 OPS in June. Cooled off slightly for a 1.011 OPS in July. And then he proceeded to put together a historic August, hitting .455 for the month with a 1.355 OPS and collecting more hits than any Dodger has in a single month (51) since the franchise moved to Los Angeles. He’s hit more home runs (38) than he has in any season of his career, and there’s still a month to go. This, while freeing up the rest of the lineup with his ability to bounce between right field and the middle infield. For as much as Betts has played off the MVP consideration publicly, he wants this, to join Frank Robinson as the only players in baseball history to win the award in both leagues.
“I think he wants it bad,” Roberts said. “He’s driven by winning championships, but I do think that having the opportunity to be recognized as the Most Valuable Player in the National League is something that matters.”
And after Acuña seemingly buried Thursday’s contest with one swing, it was Betts who responded, driving a 99 mph Spencer Strider fastball just over Acuña’s outstretched glove in right field, ricocheting off the top of the wall and over to make a game of it with a three-run shot.
“I’m just glad it went over,” Betts said.
When Michael Busch stirred more life into the Dodgers two innings later with a solo homer, Betts added to the buzz with another solo blast — his sixth multihomer game of the season.
“That’s why we’re talking about all these guys in the MVP hunt because they’re those players that like those moments,” Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said.
A one-run deficit in the ninth brought Betts to the plate — because who else? The “MVP” chants willed his first-pitch liner, but it fell short of the track and into Acuña’s glove. Though the Dodgers managed to get the tying and winning runs on base against Atlanta closer Raisel Iglesias, their rally fell short when Muncy flew out just off the end of the bat and Kiké Hernández struck out.
The Dodgers have plenty to sort out over the final month. Lynn has continued to allow more home runs than any pitcher in the sport, and he gave up three (including the Acuña grand slam) in a seven-run outing Thursday night where he never quite felt comfortable. Outside of Julio Urías, who is having a perplexing year, and Clayton Kershaw, who is still working his way back to form from an unspecified shoulder issue, the Dodgers don’t have a starter they’re planning on using traditionally this postseason. They have other roster questions to finalize and are still waiting on a few arms to serve as reinforcements.
But Thursday flashed something to keep in mind. Their stars still have been performing like stars. Given a major hole against a club that has dominated the sport all summer, they clawed back. Rookies like Busch and James Outman were given an opportunity to play in a game that felt like it had stakes.
“You can see Mookie’s poise,” Roberts said. “You can see Freddie. You can see guys that have been there, Will Smith, Max Muncy. … How you respond to nerves when the emotions start to ramp up, it’s something that you can only gain through these experiences.”
(Photo of Mookie Betts’ second home run Thursday: Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)