Team USA’s starting second baseman Thursday took his position for some work a few hours before the first pitch against the Angels and looked the part.
He fielded groundballs with fluidity. He snapped throws from various arm angles. He shifted up the middle, over to the shortstop side of the bag, and back to shallow right field, all spots he could find himself in during the World Baseball Classic.
Mookie Betts appeared at home because second base was once home.
“It’s in my roots,” Betts, 30, said Thursday. “It’s what I grew up doing and it’s hard to kind of get rid of that.”
The Boston Red Sox selected Betts in the fifth round of the 2011 draft out of high school as a second baseman. He played there, with occasional innings at shortstop, his first two full minor-league seasons. Then, in 2014, the Red Sox, with Dustin Pedroia entrenched at second base, converted Betts to the outfield in the minors.
He’s been on a Hall of Fame track as a right fielder since, accumulating six All-Star Game appearances, six Gold Glove awards, two World Series titles, an MVP award and one of the richest contracts in professional sports history along the way.
But Betts’ time as a second baseman never ended. He’s moonlighted at the position in the majors — he started 11 games and logged 100 innings in his first three seasons with the Dodgers — and his time there figures to grow in 2023.
Team USA manager Mark DeRosa confirmed Betts will occasionally play second base during the tournament to spell starter Jeff McNeil. Betts is also expected to play more second base for the Dodgers this season after shortstop Gavin Lux’s season-ending knee injury hurt the club’s middle infield depth.
“My brain’s in it more,” Betts said, comparing second base to right field, where he started for the US against the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday. “There are certain intricacies that make you a good right fielder. You’re just not in every play and whatnot like you are in the middle of the infield.
“But I definitely enjoy playing right. I don’t want to make it seem like I don’t enjoy it. I love going out there and playing and trying to be the best that I can be.”
In preparation for his dual role, Betts participated in outfield and infield drills during Team USA’s first workout Tuesday. DeRosa had heard about Betts’ infield prowess. Seeing it was another story.
“I’m blown away by his preparation, to be honest with you,” DeRosa said. “Watching him in the first couple of workouts, he can certainly handle it.”
Team USA shortstop Trea Turner and third base coach Dino Ebel already knew that. Turner watched Betts work at second base before nearly every game over the last season and a half as Dodgers teammates. He quickly noticed Betts — a superstar right fielder, talented basketball player, and professional bowler — was a skilled infielder.
“I’m not surprised because he’s good at everything,” Turner said. “He’s a freak.”
Ebel, the Dodgers’ third base and infield coach, has led most of the work with Betts in his three years as a Dodger, hitting him fungos and putting him through drills on his knees. He is convinced Betts would win a Gold Glove if he focused solely on second base. For now, he believes Betts is more than good enough to handle the position so he pushed Team USA officials to have him play there in the WBC.
“He’s got the hand-eye coordination,” Ebel said. “He moves his feet well. He reads the spin of the ball. He just has all the baseball instincts and he’s a tremendous athlete that adjusts well.”
Betts was immediately tested in the first inning Thursday; he turned a 5-4-3 double play without a hitch. That came moments after he singled as Team USA’s No. 2 hitter. He singled again in the third inning before he was pulled. He went three for three with two walks in Team USA’s exhibition games.
“He looked natural over there,” Team USA center fielder Mike Trout said. “He can play anywhere on the field — maybe not catcher.”
The talent will be on display on the nascent WBC stage, one of the few unchecked boxes remaining in Betts’ career, for the first time starting Saturday against Great Britain.
In a way, the tournament will be a return to life before stardom. A return to second base. A return to No. 3, his high school basketball number, because veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright called dibs on No. 50.
A return to his roots.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.