Seventeen years ago to the day, in another league championship series in another New York ballpark, a manager tried to restore confidence in a wayward star pitcher who had suddenly lost his control.
Facing elimination against the Mets, down by six runs in the late innings, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Tony La Russa called for Rick Ankiel to pitch the bottom of the seventh at Shea Stadium. This is how it went: walk, sacrifice bunt, strikeout, wild pitch, wild pitch, walk. Ankiel would pitch just a handful of games the rest of his career.
What we saw at Yankee Stadium on Monday, in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, was not like that. Probably not, anyway. Nobody knows exactly what thoughts are swirling through Dellin Betances’ head right now. But the results are so startling, it makes you shudder for him.
Say this for Betances, the All-Star who walked the only two Houston Astros he faced near the end of the Yankees’ 8-1 victory: He is handling his struggles with admirable professionalism.
Betances was under no obligation to talk with reporters; his brief appearance was inconsequential to the outcome of a big team victory, and he had addressed these issues after a nearly identical outing in Game 4 of the division series against Cleveland. But Betances answered every question and made no excuses.
In each of his last two games, he has walked two batters — threatening what had been a comfortable lead — and given way to Tommy Kahnle. He has left to boos from the home crowd. He knows Kahnle should have had Monday off, and closer Aroldis Chapman should never have had to warm up. He feels bad about that.
“I can’t keep putting my teammates in those situations,” Betances said. “My job is to have a clean inning, get those guys out. Next thing you know, Kahnle has to clean up my mess like last time, and now Chapman’s warming up. That’s what upsets me the most. Obviously, I’m better than that. I know I’m better than that.”
It is obvious, painfully obvious, that he is so much better than this. Betances has made the All-Star team in each of the last four seasons. The only other pitchers who have done that are Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and Max Scherzer. That is the company he keeps.
But while he struck out at least 100 hitters for the fourth consecutive season, Betances also issued 44 walks in 59⅔ innings. That comes to 6.64 walks per nine — the highest figure in the majors for any pitcher in the last five seasons (minimum 50 innings).
Just when Betances seemed to be coming around at the end of the regular season — with three scoreless, hitless, no-walk innings from Sept. 24 through 27 — Manager Joe Girardi pulled him on Sept. 29 after a single and a walk to start the ninth inning against Toronto, with a four-run lead.
Betances pitched well in the division opener against Cleveland, then followed four other relievers to the mound in Game 2. He retired the Indians in order in the 11th and 12th innings, but allowed a walk, a stolen base and a single to lose the game in the 13th. Since then: four batters, four walks.
“He’s out of whack,” Girardi conceded after Monday’s win narrowed the Astros’ lead in the American League Championship Series to two games to one. “He went through it a couple of times this year, and we’ve seemingly been able to get him on track a number of different times. And we’re still trying to do that, because I still think he’s really important to us and we need him.”
Betances — who said he was fully healthy — credited Girardi for giving him chances to work through his problems. He said he understood the jeers from the fans. He plans to watch video, but thinks he has identified a persistent mechanical flaw.
“I kind of feel like I’m just yanking everything, pulling my front side a lot,” Betances said. “I feel like my timing is off right now. That’s what’s causing the walks — my timing’s off. Consistency-wise, I just haven’t been as sharp as I want to be.”
He said he had corrected the same problem before, and naturally, his teammates said they believed he could do it again.
“I don’t worry about him at all,” reliever David Robertson said. “I’ve seen what he can do; I’ve seen how many people he strikes out. I mean, he’s throwing 100 and still throwing his breaking ball 85, he just ain’t throwing it right where he wants it. That’s the only difference. He’s still got electric stuff.”
Kahnle, who has fired eight shutout innings with one hit this postseason, said loss of control was simply a job hazard.
“We all go through ups and downs,” Kahnle said. “It could be a confidence thing. I don’t really know; I don’t talk to him too much about it. But I know I’ve gone through the same thing. It’s tough, but I’m very confident he’ll get out of it.”
Girardi cannot afford to hold onto that faith. The Yankees’ July trade with the Chicago White Sox for Robertson and Kahnle — and Todd Frazier, who homered in Game 3 — has taken on even more importance now, providing Girardi reliable options instead of Betances.
Betances understands that, too.
“It’s just a matter of me getting more work, but it’s hard, obviously, now,” he said. “In the playoffs, you’re going to rely on the arms that have been hotter.”
On the mound, Betances is not throwing pitches to the backstop. Off the mound, he is not retreating from public view. Those are encouraging signs. In his searing memoir with Tim Brown this year, Ankiel — who eventually made a comeback as an outfielder — recalled the agony of dealing with the so-called yips, the inner torment of battling the monster that swallowed up his psyche with no warning.
“I closed my eyes and put myself on that mound in St. Louis, testing myself, and the crowd rose, and the moment arrived, and I was terrified,” Ankiel wrote, describing the prospect of pitching again after the 2000 postseason. “In my backyard, facing a wall, alone, the anxiety was bigger than I was. The ball was heavy. The air stuck in my throat. Spring training report day was out there, bearing down on me, and I didn’t want to go. I couldn’t. Not like this.”
That kind of affliction, which also ruined the career of Steve Blass and others, sounds like absolute torture. It does not seem like that with Betances. He seems more like a frustrated, slumping star whose height — 6 foot 8 — makes for complicated mechanics. He could probably benefit from a winter break or a breakthrough on the mound, if the right setting arises again.
Nobody knows for sure what comes next, though, perhaps not even Betances. But he insisted he would recover.
“I’ve got a good supporting cast at home, good supporting cast here with my teammates,” Betances said. “The good thing in these bad games for me is we’re winning. For me, I’m a team guy, and I’m doing the best I can when I’m out there to cheer the guys on, and even when I leave the mess out there, I’m cheering for Kahnle and whoever’s behind me to do their job.
“In the midst of all of this, I’m keeping my head high. I’m going to continue to work hard. I know I’ve had a lot of success in this game and I know I can get back and be the pitcher I know I can be.”
Given the alternative, we all should hope for the best.