Mookie Betts was absent.
Whether he’s physically on the field, or, as was the case Sunday, not, the Dodgers have spent the majority of the year without the version of their $365-million outfielder who transformed them into World Series champions.
Betts is batting .240.
His defensive metrics are below league average.
He just doesn’t look right.
The most recent setback in a maddening season came on the morning of a series finale against the Giants at Dodger Stadium. Betts woke up with symptoms of an unspecified allergic reaction, according to manager Dave Roberts.
“Couldn’t keep his eyes open,” Roberts said.
His vision impaired, Betts was a late scratch from the lineup.
“He’s very frustrated,” Roberts said.
And the Dodgers should be very concerned, not because of the allergic reaction, but because of how little Betts has resembled the player he was last year.
Remember him, the player who was in the middle of everything in October?
He scored 15 runs in the postseason. He made game-saving catch after game-saving catch. He smacked home runs in the first and last of the Dodgers’ wins over the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series.
The Dodgers have the necessary depth to win the National League West again. But the division was never their problem.
If Betts still isn’t the same player, do the Dodgers go back to choking in the playoffs as they did before they traded for him?
There’s a good chance, considering he was what separated the 2020 Dodgers from the underachievers who came before them.
The simplest explanation for the diminished performance is that Betts is breaking down.
Betts, whom the Dodgers list at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, played in 145 or more games in four of his five full seasons with the Boston Red Sox. He’s appeared in 43 of the Dodgers’ 53 games this year, which puts him on pace for only 131.
Shortly after he returned, he was struck in the right forearm by a 95-mph fastball.
Last weekend, he was kept out of the lineup for the second game of a three-game series against the Giants in San Francisco for what Roberts initially described as a “spa day.” When Betts was scratched the next day, Roberts was forced to acknowledge he was experiencing discomfort in his left shoulder.
Roberts was asked then if injuries were responsible for Betts’ slow start.
“I think that’s fair,” Roberts said. “Mookie’s never going to use ailments or things as an excuse. He’s a guy that prides himself on playing every day. But when you talk about the swing and performing consistently, you talk about the back, you talk about the front shoulder.”
When Betts spoke to reporters, he revealed his shoulder had been bothering him for a couple of weeks. He said Roberts’ estimate that he was 80-85% physically was “about right.” However, he added, “No reason for my performance.”
“Sometimes you just don’t play well,” Betts said.
That would actually be the best-case scenario. If the problem isn’t health, if this is just a slump, Betts will come out of his funk. He’s too good to not.
By the time it was the Giants’ turn to visit the Dodgers, Roberts was back to downplaying Betts’ physical problems. The manager said there hasn’t been any discussion of placing Betts on the injured list.
“This one of those instances that is more micro and will pass,” Roberts said. “Guys always have day-to-day things.”
Nonetheless, Roberts conceded talking to Betts regularly about how he’s holding up.
“He wants to be in there every day,” Roberts said. “He’s an every-day player, has been his entire career. For me to discount where he’s at physically and to just run him out there because he’s Mookie Betts is unfair to him and team. So, with conversations with training staff, performance staff, him, I’ve made decisions on giving him days.”
One of those days came Saturday, when Roberts gave him a chance to “recalibrate” by not starting. Betts was one for 16 on the week.
He was hitless in six at-bats in the series opener against the Giants on Friday, including a strikeout to end the fourth inning with runners on second and third bases. Betts got ahead in the count against Giants pitcher Anthony DeSclafani, 3-0, only to strike out in an uncharacteristic manner, taking two strikes over the plate and whiffing on a down-the-middle fastball for strike three.
Betts knows more is expected of him.
“I’ve shown that I can play at those expectations and kind of live by them,” Betts told reporters last week. “I’m not mad at it by any means. I don’t mind expectations. It doesn’t scare me at all.”
Maybe health is a factor, maybe it isn’t. Whatever the case, Betts knows his responsibilities remain the same. No other player on the team can do what he can. He has four months to figure it out, four months to get himself in a position to lead the Dodgers to another championship.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.