TORONTO — Dellin Betances is hard to miss in just about any setting, except, perhaps, on a basketball court. At 6-foot-8, he is the tallest Yankees player — inching out outfielder Aaron Judge (6-7) and pitcher C. C. Sabathia (6-6).
But it was particularly hard to miss Betances’ familiar figure on Sunday morning before the Yankees played the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. The Yankees are closing in on their first division title in seven years, but Betances, a longtime star of the bullpen, had been absent all season with shoulder and latissimus dorsi injuries.
“It’s been a long, long season for me,” Betances said. “But I finally get to be here with the guys and be active. Very excited.”
The Yankees and Betances, 31, are racing against the clock. If the Yankees clinch the American League East crown, as they are expected to do this week, their first playoff game would not be until Oct. 4. In his three minor league rehabilitation games, Betances’ fastball was clocked at 92 to 95 miles an hour. His average in the past three seasons was 98 m.p.h.
“Arm strength, I’m still not where I want to be, but it’s definitely better than what I was early in the season, and I’m happy where I’m at right now,” he said, adding later, “I’ve got two weeks to get it right.”
Because the minor league season is over, the Yankees had little choice but to continue Betances’ buildup in the major leagues. Betances said he was confident he could still get major league hitters out, despite lower velocities, because of his sharp breaking ball and command.
“We’re hoping it continues to ramp up and gets to that point,” Manager Aaron Boone said. “But we also understand that for as hard a thrower as he is, he’s a guy that part of his dominance is based on the secondary pitches. These are an important couple weeks for him.”
If Betances pitches the way he did in the Yankees’ 6-4 loss to the Blue Jays on Sunday, he certainly has enough to succeed and be a part of the postseason pitching puzzle. He entered the game in the fourth inning after pitcher Jordan Montgomery, who also made his season debut. Montgomery, who had been out since May 1, 2018, after Tommy John surgery, allowed three runs and four hits over two innings.
Betances faced only two batters, a predetermined amount given it was his first time this season with only one day off between outings. Five of his eight pitches were fastballs, all 94 or 95 m.p.h. He struck out catcher Reese McGuire with a fastball placed perfectly on the low outside corner. He fanned first baseman Brandon Drury with his trademark knee-buckling curve. He was greeted with applause and high fives from teammates in the dugout.
“A lot of guys have,” Betances said of thriving with 92 to 95 m.p.h. fastballs. “I don’t see why I can’t. I’ve just got to be able to change speeds, making sure you keep the hitters off balance.”
It was all significantly improved from spring training, when Betances was throwing 88 to 92 m.p.h. While Betances always takes time to build up to his normal velocity, this was alarming.
The birth of his first child interrupted Betances’ off-season throwing program, and he arrived a week late to spring training in Tampa, Fla. Then he revealed discomfort in his throwing shoulder.
When he didn’t improve by April, General Manager Brian Cashman announced that Betances was being slowed by a bone spur in his shoulder that the team had known about since he was drafted in 2006 and was previously asymptomatic. Betances later said that he never knew about the bone spur in his shoulder until this season.
During a return-to-play throwing program in June, Betances strained a latissimus dorsi muscle on his right side. A similar pattern occurred with Luis Severino, the standout Yankees starting pitcher who injured the rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder in spring training and was later found to have a significant latissimus dorsi strain.
The many injuries this season have prompted the Yankees to examine their medical and rehabilitation practices. Severino is slated to make his season debut on Tuesday.
Betances’ injury-mired season came at an inopportune time. While the Yankees missed his presence, their deep bullpen has remained a strength. He said the team’s success allowed him to focus on his health and not rush back. But he may now face less lucrative offers as a free agent after this season.
From 2014 to 2018, no relief pitcher threw more innings than Betances’ 373⅓ innings. In that span, he was a four-time All-Star, and only four relief pitchers had a better mark than his 2.22 earned run average. (Two of them, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman, are Betances’ 2019 teammates.)
Reaching six years of service time, the needed amount to become a free agent, seems particularly treacherous for relief pitchers nowadays. Modern baseball has seen a rise in velocities, matchups, relief pitchers and injuries.
“It’s the first time I’ve been hurt in a while,” Betances said. “Obviously frustrating. For me, I’m just happy to be here with the team.”