Betancourt looks to avoid slow start

Betancourt looks to avoid slow start

Betancourt looks to avoid slow start
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies closer Rafael Betancourt's best form hasn't arrived this spring, but catching prospect Wilin Rosario knows that it's worth the wait.

"He's the best location pitcher I've seen in my life," said Rosario, who was called up late last season and quickly learned why Betancourt's statistics after the All-Star break led Major League relievers in multiple categories. "You can put a little cup in a spot, or a big water bottle and he can hit either, whatever pitch he wants."

Last year, no pitcher in the Majors who made at least 25 second-half relief appearances matched Betancourt's 0.33 ERA, .080 batting average against, 39-to-1 strikeouts-to-walk ratio, 2.33 hits allowed per nine innings or 2.67 baserunners allowed per nine. He took over as closer in August, and performed well enough -- with eight saves in nine opportunities -- that the Rockies felt confident trading Huston Street to the Padres.

But all those impressive facts lead to one question: Can Betancourt find his form by Opening Day?

"I'm not here to pitch bad in the first half and pitch good in the second half," Betancourt said. "I don't know why it happens. My goal is from the beginning, be the same pitcher I've been late in the year."

If Betancourt can pitch as well when the season begins as he historically has toward the end, he can help the Rockies improve from last year's 73-89 finish.

During the first half of last season, Betancourt went 2-0, but he recorded a 4.84 ERA and yielded six home runs in 39 games. He struck out 34 against seven walks, which was not awful, but nowhere near the control he has shown for long stretches.

It was a repeat of 2010. Betancourt, slowed by illness during the offseason and shoulder issues early in the year, went 2-0 but yielded a .293 batting average and seven home runs as Street's setup man. In the second half, however, he went 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA and held opponents to a .126 batting average in 34 appearances.

The pattern stretches back to 2009. He began the year with the Indians but battled through a slump and a right groin injury. However, after joining the Rockies in a July 23 trade, Betancourt went 2-1 with a 1.78 ERA in 32 games and helped his new club to the playoffs.

With the season-opener still a couple of weeks away, no one is freaking over Betancourt's Cactus League numbers -- a 9.64 ERA and .381 batting average against in 4 2/3 innings over his first five appearances.

Betancourt even sees his worst appearance as a positive. He entered in the ninth inning with a four-run lead against the Dodgers on Saturday and coughed up four runs and five hits while retiring just two batters.

"You like to take this serious, like it's the regular season, but sometimes you learn from bad games in Spring Training," Betancourt said. "I was doing something wrong, and the two days before the next time I pitched I worked on them. Sometimes if you're getting people out, you don't feel what you're doing wrong. It's better to do that earlier than later. That's why we have Spring Training."

Betancourt has given the Rockies a feeling of confidence.

Immediately upon joining the club, Betancourt's magnetism made a difference. The Rockies' roster in recent years has been populated with players from Betancourt's home country of Venezuela. That's no different this year -- new catcher Ramon Hernandez was a neighbor in Cumana and a youth teammate.

"It's exciting, having him close games with me catching," Hernandez said. "When we were younger, I played a lot of outfield and he was a shortstop. We've come a long way."

Reliever Edmer Escalona, who is trying to make the team, called Betancourt "the best guide there is."

But Betancourt has a level of experience that crosses any barriers.

"Raffy is good at really remembering hitters he's faced in the past," left-hander Matt Reynolds said. "Even though I'm a lefty and he's a righty, you still take all those things into consideration."

Betancourt doesn't detect any jump in the level of respect for him just because he has become the closer.

"Everyone is treating me the same way they've treated me the last three years," Betancourt said. "They still respect me. And I'm the same way, too. I don't think there's a reason for change."

Before last season, Betancourt functioned much better as a setup man than as closer. But after fretting not as much over the home runs Street gave up last year but the baserunners in front of those homer hitters, the Rockies gave Betancourt a chance to clear the ninth-inning hurdle. Now he has to find a way to overcome the cold, early months of the season.

"I want to think the same as I did last year when I was the closer the last six weeks," Betancourt said. "I don't want to put anything in my mind. I just want to start the year thinking I'm going to pitch in situations when we're winning, and I have to do a job."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.