Acuña and Betts battling back-and-forth as NL MVP favorites over the final weeks of the season

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The NL MVP race is going down to the wire, with Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers in a back-and-forth battle over the final month of the regular season.

Acuña is having a career year playing for a 90-win Braves team with the best record in baseball that's a virtual lock to win the NL East.

Betts is posting his best numbers since winning AL MVP with the Boston Red Sox in 2018. The Dodgers are cruising with a 14 1/2-game lead on their way to clinching their 10th NL West title in 11 years.

The two dynamic stars put on a head-to-head show during their weekend series at Dodger Stadium, with Acuña shining brightest as the Braves won three of four games.

Betts also had his moments, though, and Acuña is enjoying their chase.

“It’s something really nice just because I feel like Mookie and I have a really nice relationship,” he said through an interpreter. “Whenever we get the chance to talk, we do.”

Betts made it clear their competition isn't personal.

“I’m not playing against Ronald Acuña,” he said after the series opener. ”I’m playing against the Braves. We’re trying to beat the Braves. He’s a great, awesome person, take absolutely nothing away from him, but I’m not playing against him.”

Acuña set the tone in the first game, smashing a grand slam in an 8-7 victory only hours after getting married near Los Angeles in a small ceremony that caught even teammates by surprise. That made him the first player in major league history with 30 home runs and 60 stolen bases in a season.

Betts hit two homers in the same game, the first of three straight losses by the Dodgers.

Acuña went deep in the next two games, too — highlighted by a 454-foot shot to center field that came off his bat at 121.2 mph, the hardest-hit ball in the majors this season.

In the finale Sunday, the Dodgers avoided a sweep with a 3-1 win as Betts went 3 for 4 with an RBI. Acuña was hitless in four at-bats with a strikeout.

Acuña, the 25-year-old right fielder from Venezuela, was the 2018 NL Rookie of the Year, the same season Betts was AL MVP while helping the Red Sox win the World Series.

At 30, Betts is posting his best numbers since that MVP season.

He hit .455 in August while setting Los Angeles Dodgers records for hits and runs (35) in a month. Betts was just the third player in MLB history with a .450 batting average, 50-plus hits and 10-plus homers in a month, joining Lou Gehrig (June 1930) and Babe Ruth (July 2023 and '24), according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Acuña and Betts either lead or are among the top 10 in various National League categories.

Acuña leads in hits (184), on-base percentage (.419) and stolen bases (63).

Betts leads the NL in OPS (1.021) and slugging (.614), ranks fourth with a career-high 38 home runs, and is second in runs (117) and fifth in walks (78).

Defensively, Betts has the edge over his younger rival. He's playing strong outfield defense and his fielding percentage in right is 1.000. Acuña's percentage is .981.

Betts has also spent time at shortstop and second base this season, moves that manager Dave Roberts credits for keeping him fresh and engaged.

“I won MVP in right field,” Betts said. “It doesn’t really matter where I play. The (batter’s) box is the box and defense is defense. They’re two separate things and I keep them that way.”

Acuña has taken his game to the next level in his sixth major league season.

“Baseball is a game that lends itself to continued growth and learning, so I feel like that’s the kind of player that I am,” he said. “I like to continue to grow, I like to continue to learn, I like to listen to my coaches, see what feedback can happen from them. I worked really hard this offseason to be ready.”

Betts has found a comfort level during his fourth season in Los Angeles. He's got Freddie Freeman hitting behind him and he's been reunited with former Red Sox teammate J.D. Martinez.

The two stayed close after their Boston years, picking apart each other’s swings via video. Betts credits Martinez sharing his hitting knowledge for the rise in his own numbers.

“Just stays on me no matter how good or bad we’re doing," Betts said. “No matter what the score is, you've got to take care of the at-bat.”

Betts would be just the second player in big league history to win MVP honors in both leagues. Hall of Fame slugger Frank Robinson did it with Cincinnati (1961) and Baltimore (1966).

“Coming to the park, having fun, laughing, joking, those things go a way long, especially when we're in the sixth inning and we need a big hit,” Betts said. “You know you've got your brothers cheering for you and you want to do it for your brothers to win the game.”