The line drive was sinking, and sinking fast, maybe too fast in right-center field for Mookie Betts to slide his glove underneath the baseball before it grazed the grass.
But Betts’ instincts, perhaps unmatched in the world of baseball, took over. His jump was instant and his angle from center field was direct. He completed his pursuit with a dive just in time to have the ball off Tommy Pham’s bat land in the heel of his glove. He secured it with his right hand, rose to his knees, pounded his chest and howled up at the black sky.
“I just kind of blacked out,” Betts said after the 2-0 Dodgers victory. “I was in the moment, playing the game. I just knew that when the ball went up in the air I had to go catch it, and that’s what I did.”
Said Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw: “It’s just another reason why he’s the best.”
Kershaw logged six scoreless innings, extending his scoreless streak to 18. He had eight strikeouts to two walks and generated 16 swing-and-misses.
Yu Darvish countered by surrendering a run on one hit across seven innings, that run scoring on a bases-loaded walk to Kershaw. He had nine strikeouts and two walks.
The Dodgers have won eight straight games and 13 of 14. Four of those eight wins have come by shutout. They enter Sunday 4½ games ahead of the Padres (9-7) in the National League West standings and looking for a sweep in a series that has matched the hype preceding it.
The series opener Friday night featured a stupefying mishmash of highlights, oddities and escalated emotions. The teams combined for six errors. The benches cleared. Corey Seager slugged a leadoff two-run home run in the 12th inning. A pitcher (David Price) hit a sacrifice fly off a position player (Jake Cronenworth) to a pitcher (Joe Musgrove) in left field.
By the end of the long night, both sides openly acknowledged what the world around them already heartily recognized: this was a rivalry.
“It was a like a playoff game,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said after his club’s 11-6 win.
The intensity was heightened again Saturday and spiked in the bottom of the fourth inning. The game had been a taut pitcher’s duel until Kershaw fired a fastball by Jurickson Profar. The pitch was over the plate and initially called strike three.
But Profar protested, arguing that he hit Austin Barnes’ glove with his half swing, which should’ve been a catcher’s interference and given him first base. The umpires decided to review the play. Kershaw then erupted, shouting at Profar from in front of the Dodgers’ dugout. Profar yelled back from first base as the benches half-emptied.
“I’m not saying it was intentional, but that was not a big league swing,” said Kershaw, who added that he had a problem with Profar’s swing because he could’ve hurt Barnes. “I asked the umpire if I can just hit the catcher’s glove every time. I’ve got a much better chance to do that than hitting the ball.”
Catcher’s interference was ruled, but Kershaw got Cronenworth to fly out to end the inning.
Ultimately, the difference Saturday was manufactured by Kershaw. Not with his slider or curveball or even with his bat. But with his eyes.
The bases were loaded in the fifth inning when Kershaw walked to the plate to face Darvish, who was suddenly on the ropes.
His perfect game was ruined three batters earlier when he hit Zach McKinstry’s back foot with a breaking ball. The next batter, Luke Raley, ended his no-hitter with a single to center field. Barnes then walked to load the bases and pin the inning’s fate on Kershaw, a .161 career hitter.
Darvish inexplicably fell behind 2-0 before he found the zone. Kershaw took the next pitch for a strike before fouling off the three subsequent pitches. Darvish then fired two balls, the second just off the plate that Kershaw took for a walk to push across the game’s first run.
“Just trying to be annoying, really,” Kershaw said. “I wasn’t going to get a hit off of him. He’s got too good of stuff.”
The Padres had their best scoring chance against Kershaw in the sixth inning. Trent Grisham worked a leadoff walk. Two batters later, Manny Machado cracked a single to left field to put runners on the corners for Wil Myers.
The Dodgers shifted their infield against the right-handed-hitting Myers, who hit a ground ball to Chris Taylor behind second base. Taylor backhanded the ball, sprinted to second base and threw to first to squash the threat.
The Dodgers held the one-run edge until Justin Turner slammed his fifth home run of the season in the ninth inning for the Dodgers’ third and final hit of the night. The margin held up because Betts made a play few of his peers can match.
Betts had to cover 52 feet in 3.3 seconds. The data estimated that the line drive had a 10% catch probability. For Betts, it was another highlight on a growing reel.
“It just speaks to why,” Roberts said, “he’s arguably the best all-around player in baseball.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.