OAKLAND -- As Christian Bethancourt made his way to the box for his third at-bat against Justin Verlander on Wednesday afternoon at the Coliseum, he astutely observed Astros catcher Martín Maldonado venture out for a mound visit with the star right-hander.
Seconds earlier Elvis Andrus had broken up Verlander’s no-hit bid and shutout with two outs in the seventh on a game-tying RBI double, so the chat between the Houston batterymates could have just been a chance for a breather. Bethancourt, though, used the pause in the action to reflect on his earlier at-bats.
Taking into account the five of seven pitches that went for fastballs in his first two plate appearances, which resulted in a strikeout and flyout, Bethancourt figured the mound meeting was to change the plan of attack against him this time up. Bethancourt expected a breaking ball early, but Verlander hung a first-pitch curveball and Bethancourt did not miss, pouncing for a two-run homer -- the 30-year-old catcher’s first Major League home run since Aug. 12, 2016 -- that put the A’s ahead by two runs.
“To hit a homer, especially against a guy that’s a future Hall of Famer and a great pitcher, that’s just a good feeling,” Bethancourt said. “I’ve been hitting the ball hard but mostly on the ground. Not lucky enough to lift the ball. Today, it was a great feeling.”
The positive vibes produced from Bethancourt’s blast later fizzled for the A’s. Carrying a two-run lead into the ninth, Oakland’s bullpen was tagged for four runs in the 5-4 loss to the Astros, who completed a three-game sweep. Considering the baseball journey Bethancourt has navigated since his last home run, though, this feel-good story is one worth telling, regardless of the final score.
With the A’s going through a rebuild, their roster heavily features either young players looking to establish themselves as big leaguers or veterans looking to prove they still have something left in the tank. Bethancourt falls somewhere in the middle.
A native of Panama City, Panama, a 16-year-old Bethancourt signed with the Braves as an international free agent in 2008 and soon blossomed, earning a spot in the 2012 All-Star Futures Game and elevating himself to the upper echelon of Atlanta’s top-rated prospects. Touted for his defense, particularly a cannon of an arm behind the plate, Bethancourt reached the Major Leagues in 2013 with the Braves. That promising career, though, soon took a turn.
Dealing with offensive struggles and injuries, Bethancourt was traded in December 2015 to the Padres, where most of his playing time came as a backup. He converted to a two-way player in 2017, trying his hand as a reliever in addition to catcher and outfielder, but the experiment did not go well. Struggles through four relief appearances with San Diego led to a demotion to Triple-A and his eventual election for free agency at season’s end.
After a Minor League deal with the Brewers in 2018 went nowhere, despite making the Triple-A All-Star Game that season, Bethancourt signed with the NC Dinos of the KBO (Korean Baseball Organization) in December 2018. Seven months later, he was waived. Then came failed Minor League deals with the Phillies and Pirates from 2020-21.
Entering the offseason, Bethancourt was in search of an organization where he would have a legitimate shot of seeing Major League action. Settling on a Minor League deal with the A’s in December 2021 that included an invite to Spring Training, his impressive power during batting practice -- described by A’s manager Mark Kotsay as “elite” power -- left a good impression with the big league staff. A good start at the plate at Triple-A Las Vegas led to his callup to Oakland on April 15.
Having played in 33 games for the A’s entering Wednesday, Bethancourt had been making plenty of hard contact -- ranking in the 80th percentile of Major League hitters in max exit velocity -- but had yet to translate that batting practice power into a game. But in the series finale vs. the Astros, 2,118 days after his last home run, which came against the Rays as a member of the Padres, Bethancourt finally ran into another one.
“It’s about time,” A’s starting pitcher Cole Irvin said with a laugh. “Watching him take BP is a lot of fun. He’s got a lot of power, so it’s about time he got that first one. Hopefully, that rolls into a few more and gets him going.”
It’s unclear where Bethancourt fits into Oakland’s long-term plans. Sean Murphy remains entrenched behind the plate as the regular starter, while veteran Stephen Vogt is rehabbing from injury with Triple-A Las Vegas. At the very least, Bethancourt’s perseverance provided a special moment against a pitcher who one day will likely be enshrined amongst baseball immortality in Cooperstown.
“It obviously is a great reward for him,” Kotsay said. “He’s grinded to get this opportunity to be here. It was a big moment in the game, so there was a lot of excitement behind the hit from his teammates. I think everybody was really happy for Beth today.”