Rafael Betancourt’s odd windup seems an appropriate metaphor to explain his road to a Major League bullpen. Slow, methodical, repetitive. After every pitch he returns to the rubber to begin his routine. He knows the importance of rhythm. He also knows a thing or two about bouncing back. His career has been littered with them. The pitcher converted to shortstop with a bionic arm (injury left Betancourt with a plate and six screws in his pitching elbow). Battling back has been his MO. “Raffy”, as he’s known to teammates and manager Walt Weiss, has spent much of this season bouncing on and off the DL. Last night, Raffy may have suffered an injury that even his resilience might not overcome.
Betancourt’s story starts in Boston. Signed as an amateur free agent by the Red Sox in 1999, Betancourt spent just over a month on the team before being released. He never threw a pitch. When his phone never rang, he headed further east to Yokohama in 2000. Playing for the Baystars, a professional baseball team in the Japanese Central League, Raffy began improving his fastball and his slider, which many often mistake for a slurve.
In 2001, after one season with the Baystars, Raffy was granted free agency. He would sit out the 2002 season before finally beginning his stint in the Majors. On July 13, 2003, Raffy made his debut with the Cleveland Indians. He would strike out 36 batters in 38 innings of work that year. In 2004 his experience doubled, as did his strikeouts. It appeared Betancourt had become a regular in a Major League bullpen.
Then nearly two years to the day of his MLB debut, Raffy became the sixth player on an ever growing list of players suspended for testing positive for PEDs. The attention of a positive test didn’t garner near the attention then as it does today, and Betancourt served his suspension quietly. He would play with the Tribe until 2009. Raffy had finally become a reliable bullpen arm; the kind that generated interest from the Colorado Rockies.
July of 2009 sent Raffy to the Mile High City. Betancourt brought with him a 94 MPH fastball, that slider disguised as a slurve, and a well groomed changeup. Despite moving to a hitter friendly ballpark, Betancourt never missed a beat. Since his arrival, Betancourt has thrown 236.1 innings and kept an ERA just a shade over 3.00. Raffy found a home in Colorado.
Then came this season. 2013 has been a rocky road for Rafael Betancourt. First it was a groin injury in June that placed him on the DL. Shortly after being reactivated he developed appendicitis and went back on. Injuries were taking their toll on the 38-year-old. Five days ago, the Rockies reactivated Betancourt once again. They finally had the stable force their bullpen has needed all year.
Last night Raffy felt something in his right elbow. It wasn’t attention grabbing like Tim Hudson’s ankle. It didn’t eat at your heart like Blue Jays pitcher Ramon Ortiz’s injury. No, Betancourt stood on the mound surrounded by his teammates and wiped his brow. Was he about to face something that both Hudson and Ortiz were? The thing that all athletes, whether professional, college, or high-school fear. The moment when your body tells you your career is over.
Perhaps frustrated that he’d had just blown a save or that again he was unable to stave off the injury bug, Raffy walked off the field head down. He had blown saves before and bounced back. He had been in and out of the Majors and bounced back. He had been on the DL twice this year and bounced back. But was that thing he felt in his elbow his body’s way of letting him know his time as a pitcher is over? Walt Weiss stated the obvious when he said, “When you come out of the game, it’s never good.” For Raffy, bouncing back has become a way of life. Here’s hoping he’ll be bouncing back from a strain and not something more serious.