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Mookie Betts' aggressive approach pays dividends in rout of Yankees

BOSTON -- If not for intermittent drizzle Tuesday evening, television cameras would've been focused on twin New York Yankees sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton as they took aim at the Green Monster in batting practice.

Instead, a few hours later, viewers were treated to the Mookie Betts Show.

As the Boston Red Sox renewed their age-old rivalry with the Yankees, Betts put forth a performance for the ages. In a 14-1 Red Sox rout, he punctuated a 4-for-5 night with a grand slam in a nine-run sixth inning. Betts became only the second player ever with at least four hits, five runs and four RBIs in a game against the Yankees, joining Ken Griffey Jr. on May 24, 1996.

"I mean, at this point, it's almost not impressive," Red Sox ace Chris Sale said with a straight face. "No, I'm just kidding. It's great. I think he was involved in nine runs, scored five and a grand slam. He just continues to be unbelievable."

At 9-1, the Red Sox are off to the best start in franchise history. Betts is an enormous reason for that. In 10 games, he is posting video-game numbers: 16-for-37 (.432, which leads the majors), five doubles, two homers, 13 runs, six RBIs, six walks, only three strikeouts, a .533 on-base percentage and a .730 slugging percentage.

It's hardly a surprise that Betts has been Boston's best all-around player. He has owned that distinction for the past three years, including his near-MVP season in 2016.

But Betts is finally emerging as the leading man in the most literal sense. He has taken an offseason challenge from new manager Alex Cora to be a more aggressive hitter out of the leadoff spot rather than focusing so much on taking pitches.

As the Houston Astros' bench coach last season, Cora observed that Betts would take a strike in his first at-bat or two of every game and then "ambush you the third at-bat with a predetermined swing." In his first phone conversation with Betts, Cora said he intended to bat him in the leadoff spot and wanted him to be aggressive from the first pitch.

"I think it was just right after he got hired. That was one of the first things he said to me," Betts said. "He must really pay attention to detail if it was one of the first things he said. He showed me numbers of my swing percentages and not necessarily scouting reports. It's just, swing more often."

On Tuesday night, Betts swung at the second pitch of the game from Yankees ace Luis Severino, stroked it to left-center field for a double and scored two batters later on Hanley Ramirez's single. Betts singled on a 1-2 pitch from Severino in the second inning, drew a walk in the fourth and doubled on a 1-1 pitch from reliever Tommy Kahnle in the sixth. After the Red Sox batted around, Betts got a juicy 2-1 pitch from reliever Chasen Shreve and belted it over the Green Monster.

Five plate appearances. Eighteen pitches. Four hits and a walk.

That's called being aggressive.

"First of all, he's going to make contact. But now he understands he can do damage in the strike zone," Cora said. "He doesn't have to just put the ball in play and get singles. I told him, 'Hey man, there's nothing [wrong] with swinging and missing at pitches. It doesn't matter. It's just a strike.' With his ability, he's going to put the ball in play later on in the at-bat.

"You can see he's ready to hit. It's not like he's taking pitches just to take. That's what we call 'bad takes.' He was taking too many pitches right down the middle, and he can do damage with that. I think with what I learned from him last year being on the opposite side and talking to him about the way other teams see him, then he started thinking, 'Well, I can change my approach.'"

Against the Yankees, Betts saw historic results. He became the first player in Red Sox history with at least four hits, four runs and four RBIs out of the leadoff spot. And his grand slam was the first by a Red Sox hitter against the Yankees since Jarrod Saltalamacchia took Preston Claiborne deep on Sept. 13, 2013. The Red Sox won the World Series that season.

Moreover, the Red Sox's nine-run sixth inning was their biggest outburst against the Yankees since May 31, 1998, when they scored 11 runs in the third inning at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees won 114 games and the World Series that season.

This season, Boston and New York are expected to duke it out for the AL East title. While most of the focus has been on the power-packed top of the Yankees' order, it was the Red Sox's 1-2-3 hitters -- Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Ramirez -- who went 8-for-9 with four walks, eight runs scored and nine RBIs.

"[Betts] goes up there with an idea of what he wants to do," Benintendi said. "He doesn't swing at bad pitches. He waits for that pitcher to throw what he wants or makes a mistake. When he does, it's trouble for them."