Colorado Rockies reliever Rafael Betancourt's save on Monday afternoon against the San Francisco Giants was the 39 year old's 75th game saver in what is now his 12th major league season. For any other veteran reliever, it would just be another day at the office. For Betancourt, it marked a triumphant return to a game most thought he would never play again.
For over a decade with the Cleveland Indians and Rockies, Betancourt had compiled a 3.19 ERA in 646 innings and 684 strikeouts. With the Rockies, his career blossomed and as their closer he became as automatic in the ninth inning as any closer in baseball.
A torn ulnar collateral ligament in 2013 nearly derailed his career. Many voices told him that the seriousness of the injury combined with age had conspired to ruin any chance of rehabbing his right elbow enough to ever pitch again. Doubters would consistently be against the then 38 year old Venezuelan's wish to return to the game he loved. But Betancourt's desire and determination to overcome the odds blocked out those voices and set him on the difficult path back to the mound.
Signed by the Indians in 2003, Betancourt made his major league debut that season and quickly grew into a dependable late inning reliever who had excellent command of his pitches with pinpoint location.
It was that kind of veteran reliever the Rockies were looking for when they traded for Betancourt a week before the trade deadline in 2009. Betancourt quickly solidified the bullpen and took on the role as the setup man for closer Huston Street. The strength of the bullpen helped the Rockies return to the playoffs for the second time in three years.
Betancourt remained as the 8th inning setup man until Street suffered an injury in August of 2011 that propelled him into the closer role. He converted 8-of-9 save opportunities after taking and convinced Rockies management they could trade Street and keep Betancourt as the team's closer.
The Rockies new closer converted 31-of-38 save opportunities in 2012 and in 2013 Betancourt was close to automatic in the ninth inning, until trouble with his right elbow emerged on a warm August night in Philadelphia.
Betancourt came into the game on August 20 converting 16-of-17 save opportunities. The Rockies headed into the bottom of the ninth leading 3-2 over the Phillies. With Betancourt on the mound, it seemed like an insurmountable lead.
Pitching to the leadoff batter Erik Katz, Betancourt immediately knew something wasn't quite right. Tightness in his right elbow wasn't unexpected after a recent stretch of inactivity due to the club's inability to produce a save opportunity. However, on this night, something was different and it showed when the Phillies teed off on him for two doubles and single to win the game 4-3.
The elbow felt worse the day after and warming up in the bullpen the next night, Betancourt hoped he could push through.
“Sometimes you have soreness after you pitch. Last night was different while I was pitching. It was weird. And it was a little sore after the game,” Betancourt said at the time. “Today, I was sore, but you know, I was warming up and I thought I could get get through it.”
Betancourt entered the ninth with a 4-3 Rockies lead and it appeared that he would be able to fight through the pain for his 17th save. After retiring the first two Phillies batters, Jimmy Rollins doubled and then stole third. The pain was almost unbearable now for Betancourt who struggled to focus on Michael Young, the man who drove in the game winning run the night before.
Betancourt got ahead of Young 0-2 but the searing pain forced him to face reality on the next pitch.
“I figured I had one more pitch in me. Either get him out and game over, or come out of the game,” Betancourt said. “I thought I could do it. If I throw one more pitch after that it was going to be really bad.”
Young hit the next pitch softly up the third baseline and Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado attempted to barehand the ball, but missed. Young was safe at first and Betancourt's night and most likely his career was finished.
An MRI confirmed Betancourt's and the Rockies worst fears; a torn ulnar collateral ligament. At the age of 38, Betancourt was faced with the prospect of retiring or undergoing Tommy John Surgery and facing the uncertainty of whether or not he would be able to rehab sufficiently enough to return to a major league mound. The odds were against it but Betancourt wanted to end his career on his terms.
“I still want to play. I think I can still pitch in the big leagues,” Betancourt said. “I don’t want to finish my career the way it happened. That’s why I want to come back.”
As expected, the Rockies declined the $4.25 million option for 2014. What wasn't expected was the complete support the Rockies gave to Betancourt during his rehab.
Without a contract, the team threw open the doors of their spring training complex in Scottsdale, Arizona for Betancourt. He worked out with the Rockies during their 2014 spring training and stayed with the club through their opening series against the Marlins in Miami, near his winter home in Orlando, Florida.
“I always say stuff happens for a reason. It’s not like you’re looking for something like this to make you push harder or make you work harder, but it happened to me,” Betancourt said. “They were thinking, ‘Maybe he’s done.’ I’m 39. I don’t want to go out like this. I want to come back and pitch whatever years I have left.”
In mid-April the Rockies signed Betancourt to a minor league deal and had him report to Rookie-A ball with the Grand Junction Rockies as he continued his trek back to the big club. Betancourt pitched with the club in 14 games from July 6-August 14. How badly did Betancourt want to resume his major league career? Bad enough to ride the bus on the long road trips.
“It’s nine hours; I have to do it," Betancourt said before departing Grand Junction for a series in Idaho Falls, Idaho. It’s part of life and what I need to do to get back.”
Betancourt would spend the rest of August with the Rockies then head off to what was then the Triple-A affiliate in Colorado Springs. He would end his minor league stint with less than impressive numbers (21 G, 2-0, 4.66 ERA) but considering he had no fastball or curveball to speak of due to arm weakness, it wasn't a bad effort.
The hope of a September call-up with the Rockies never materialized and Betancourt entered the offseason as a free agent looking to land a new contract.
Betancourt received an offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers but signed a minor-league deal with the Rockies and received an invitation to spring training.
Betancourt entered spring training once again the underdog as he battled to secure a roster spot in the bullpen. He impressed the Rockies as his velocity returned to his fastball, hitting the mid-90's. Betancourt also debuted a wicked changeup to his repertoire that he had developed the year before.
"He still has that pinpoint command," remarked manager Walt Weiss during spring training. "He can clip the corners with everything he throw. He's still very effective."
It took until the final week of spring training but the Rockies announced that Betancourt would break camp with the big league club and travel to Milwaukee for the season opener.
Betancourt has returned to form with the Rockies in 2015 and has impressed everyone with his improbable comeback. After five games he has given up just a single run on one hit, struck out six and walked one. Will this start hold up over an entire season or will the soon-to-be 40 year old become worn down by the rigors of an entire season, only time will tell.
And after that impressive save on Monday afternoon in San Francisco, did Betancourt take time out in the clubhouse to reflect on the personal accomplishment of the moment? No.
"I feel great. I feel happy because we won the game," said Betancourt deflecting attention from himself. "This shows what kind of team we have."
Betancourt was focused on his team. A team he battled long and hard over an uncertain year and a half to get back to.