Mookie Betts couldn’t reach it.
He shouldn’t have tried to.
In the fourth inning of the Red Sox’ latest loss, an 8-1 defeat to the lowly Orioles in which Betts was as bad as any of the Sox hitters on the day, there was a matchup so lopsided that computer programs might’ve combusted if given the chance to simulate results.
Betts, the reigning American League MVP, was facing Dan Straily, who entered Monday with the highest ERA (19.29) and WHIP (3.21) of any pitcher in the league with four innings this season. Straily had faced 28 batters and none of them had struck out.
On top of that, Marathon Monday is historically a game nobody wants to pitch because of the early start time, which forces big leaguers out of their regular schedule and requires starting pitchers to get to the park shortly after sunrise. For perspective, Red Sox starter Hector Velazquez said he was feeling “slow” all day.
On the other side, Straily stymied the Red Sox. And their MVP.
He was throwing nothing but 82-84 mph changeups and 88-91 mph fastballs against Betts, who hit .434 off fastballs 91 mph and slower last year.
He hit .480 off changeups at 84 mph or slower.
And yet in the fourth inning, there was a perfect storm of missed opportunities, bad decisions and out-of-sync swings.
“Basically, what I’m doing is unacceptable,” Betts would say afterward.
Straily started him with an 89-mph fastball on the upper-outside corner. No swing. Good pitch. Strike one. Tip your cap.
Behind 0-1, Betts laid off a pair of 90-mph heaters, one far inside, another on the outside edge for a border-line ball to flip the count to 2-1.
The next pitch was Betts’ to mash, a pumpkin over the heart of the plate. It was a changeup at 83 mph. Betts didn’t swing. Strike two.
“I think Mookie would like to have that one back,” Jerry Remy said on the NESN broadcast.
The count 2-2, Straily threw what should’ve been a non-competitive fastball at 91 mph and about 12 inches outside. But Betts swung anyways, missing for a swinging strike three.
“I’m not exactly sure what’s going on,” Betts said afterward. “I just have to find a way to get some hits and get on base.”
I’m not really doing anything well right now. It (stinks). Nothing really else to say but it (stinks) and I have to figure out a way to make something happen.”
After going deep in the sixth inning on Opening Day at Fenway Park last Tuesday, Betts went 2-for-18 with just a pair of singles the rest of the homestand.
“Not sure I found anything,” he said. “I think we’ve all been watching the same game. It’s tough having so much success last year and not really having any right now. But I just have to continue to work to get out of it.”
Betts finished Monday 0-for-3 with a walk as his average dropped to .222 on the season.
“Mookie can turn it around in two seconds, he’s just got to get some pitches over the plate and be ready for them,” said hitting coach Tim Hyers. “He’s trying to do so well that I think sometimes he gets in his own way, trying to do too much with each pitch. That’s when you see some balls pop up that he usually drives.
“He just has to get back to maybe not over-swinging, not using his body so much. Allow his great hands to work, stay on the line.”
It can’t be easy for Betts, who has flip-flopped between the leadoff spot and the No. 2 spot in the order this season and is hitting in a lineup that is drastically underperforming to start the year.
He’s struggled in the past with putting too much pressure on himself, he’s been one to admit. Hyers can see some of that again. Betts isn’t quite sure.
“I wouldn’t say it’s more pressure, but I know there have been many times where I can help score runs or do something and I haven’t done it,” he said. “I take full ownership of that.”
It’s not that Betts isn’t capable of taking a 91-mph fastball 12 inches off the plate and hammering it over the right-field fence. Surely, he’s done more with less. Right now it’s not working. The Sox are telling him to calm down, not try so hard, but they know it’s easier said than done.
“They all want to do it so badly for this city, team, organization, fanbase,” Hyers said. “Sometimes that’s the problem, they want it so bad they want to get three hits in one at-bat. It doesn’t work that way.”
Betts isn’t the only one struggling. Dustin Pedroia is hitting .105 to start the season. Andrew Benintendi hurt himself and missed the final 14 innings of the series. Steve Pearce is hitting .125. Rafael Devers is hitting .254. The catchers have combined to hit .209.
Straily held the Red Sox hitless until the fifth inning, allowed one run on two singles and a groundout and got the win for completing five innings of work. And he struck out his first two batters of the year: Pearce and Betts.
The Red Sox split their four-game set with the Orioles, a team that won 61 fewer games than the Sox just one season ago. The O’s outscored them 21-16 in the series.
“We let them get by with some pitches we should’ve hammered,” Hyers said.
How far away are the Sox’ bats from coming alive?
“Obviously from the outside looking in, it looks pretty far,” Betts said. “But on the inside it seems like we’re a hit or two away from scoring some runs. Maybe a bounce here or there and maybe we score some runs. But I know for sure I have to do start doing something.”