Dellin Betances left a fastball up and Desmond Jennings pounced on it for a one-out double. It was a scoreless game in the top of the sixth. Matt Joyce and Wil Myers were coming to the plate. The Rays had the go-ahead run in scoring position. That’s about as close to a big-league situation as a young pitcher can face on March 9, and Betances decided to go with whatever John Ryan Murphy wanted him to throw.
Murphy was crouched behind the plate, looking at a 6-foot-8 right hander whose prospect reputation — for better and for worse — had been built largely on a powerful fastball and shaky control.
Murphy called for a breaking ball. Then another. Then another. Six in a row. Three to Joyce, who struck out. Three to Myers, who rolled over an 0-2 pitch for an inning-ending ground out.
“I thought about it,” Betances said. “I was like, ‘Damn, I threw six straight breaking balls.’ I’m not used to doing that.”
Would Murphy have called that same sequence, say, three years ago? Could Betances have made it work?
“Probably not,” Murphy said. “Some days, yes. Most days, no. But he’s come a long way.”
This is the first spring Betances has come to big league camp with a legitimate chance to make the team. So far, he’s making a compelling case with 6.1 scoreless innings. He’s allowed two hits, walked two and struck out five. Mostly, though, he’s proven he’s become more than a powerful thrower with a big fastball.
Late in 2012, Betances was looking for an alternative to his inconsistent curveball, and he began experimenting with a slider. A Double-A teammate that year, Mikey O’Brien, taught Betances to tilt his wrist a little bit, and that seemed to make all the difference. The slider comes out pretty slurvy — in fact, Joe Girardi still calls it a curveball — but it’s consistent, and Betances can throw a smaller one for a strike or a harder one for a swing-and-miss. That slider/slurve has replaced his curveball, and that’s the pitch he threw six times in a row to strand the go-ahead run against a pair of dangerous big league power hitters.
“(It showed me) that he trusts it, that he has confidence in it, that he knows that he can get people out with it,” Girardi said. “That’s important because you’re going to have to do it at this level. You’re going to have to throw it behind in counts. You have to throw at any time because relievers are often put into tough situations. … He’s throwing the ball well, doing what he needs to do to give himself an opportunity.”
Betances said there was no message from Larry Rothschild telling him to use his breaking ball in that situation. It’s just something he’s learned to do. Betances has seen things go poorly in the minors, he’s seen them come back together, and now he sees an opportunity to make up for the stumbles and become a legitimate major league pitcher.
“It’s just experiencing the past,” he said. “Last year, coming up in September, I threw too many fastballs. I know my offspeed was one of the things that helped me out when I got in trouble with my fastball. I would try to use that to keep myself a little calm with my mechanics. I just tried to take that into this spring, mix my pitches. In the big leagues, everybody can hit fastballs no matter how hard you throw. I’m just trying to use all my pitches the best way I can.”
Associated Press photo