The motion is quick and rhythmic. A step back, a lift of the cap, a one-two wipe of the forehead -- first with his right forearm and then his left. Dellin Betances pushes the sweat from his brow seemingly between every pitch. If those watching didn't know better, they'd think the reliever is rattled. He is not.
With the Yankees clinging to a 1-0 lead over the first-place Blue Jays despite stranding 14 base runners through the previous eight innings, Betances -- after being ahead in the count -- walks leadoff hitter Josh Thole, and pinch-runner Junior Lake replaces him at first. Pitchers don't like to walk the leadoff guy; they especially don't like to walk the leadoff guy with the top of the order coming up.
Betances gets the next batter, Devon Travis, to pop up to first baseman Mark Teixeira in foul territory for the first out. A step back, a lift of the cap, a one-two wipe of the forehead …
Josh Donaldson is next up in the batter's box, and Betances falls behind 2-0 before getting a called strike on an 84.1-mph knuckle-curve. His next offering, a 99.6-mph fastball, is outside. A step back, a lift of the cap, a one-two wipe of the forehead …
He goes with another breaking ball; there's contact, and he spins around to see the ball sail past a diving Didi Gregorius for a single. Lake has advanced to third. The reliever's face reveals little. There's not a grimace or a wince.
Designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion, who entered the game leading the Majors with 97 RBI, walks to the plate. A step back, a lift of the cap, a one-two wipe of the forehead …
Betances pulls back and delivers a knuckle-curve that Encarnacion hits hard down the third-base line. Betances sees Chase Headley get there. We have a chance to turn it, he thinks. Headley fires the ball to Starlin Castro -- who fires it to Teixeira. Double play. Game over.
Facing the infield, Betances nods and releases what looks like a sigh of relief. He turns and meets catcher Gary Sánchez between the mound and home plate. They smack hands and pull each other in for a hug. As Betances pulls away, he enthusiastically pats Sanchez' chest protector twice, saying something that can't quite be made out by those in the stands, but his huge smile says it all. The man is clearly happy.
With the help of his teammates, Betances escaped a jam, and the Yankees won, which he thinks is awesome. It's his fifth save since bullpen-mates Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman were traded and he inherited the closer's role. But the reliever has a nagging feeling that he just can't shake.
Finding the Perfect Fit
Three full seasons hardly seems enough time to qualify a player for veteran status. But when the player is a 6-foot-8, 265-pound pitcher who brandishes a high-90s fastball and a "wipeout pitch" in his curveball, who has led the Majors in strikeouts by a reliever the last two years, and who can close the door on opponents when they have the best shot of scoring, it seems reasonable to consider as much.
Since his rookie season in 2014, Betances has put together quite the portfolio. In his freshman and sophomore seasons, he struck out 135 batters in 90 innings and 131 in 84 innings, respectively, establishing new franchise records for single-season strikeout totals as a reliever. The previous record holder? Yankees legend Mariano Rivera. Not bad company. In those seasons, he also posted an ERA of 1.50 or lower and going into 2016 had held opposing hitters to a .134 average with runners in scoring position. Through mid-September of this season, Betances had notched 117 strikeouts -- tops among relievers in the Majors -- and hitters were batting .195 against him.
Betances' combination of tools and results has made him 3-for-3 in All-Star Game selections -- he was chosen by his peers in Years 1 and 2 and tabbed by American League Manager Ned Yost in Year 3 -- and has earned him the respect of teammates and opponents, alike.
"From afar as a bullpen guy, you take notice, especially with a guy who's striking out so many guys and has the stuff that he's featuring," said reliever Tyler Clippard, who returned to the Yankees after eight-and-a-half seasons away thanks to a trade with the Diamondbacks this past July. "You're kind of in awe of some of the stuff he's been able to do this early in his career."
Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild has watched Betances gradually ascend in the bullpen -- from middle reliever and setup man to closer -- and simply put, the coach says, "He's been good."
"He's got two special pitches, so there's not one thing hitters can necessarily look for," said Rothschild. "I think he's got some deception because of his size, he's competed great, and he's been a good teammate to everybody in here. He's been everything you'd want him to be."
The bullpen has been a natural fit for Betances, but entering the game in the late innings wasn't always the plan. After being drafted by the Yankees in 2006, the then-18-year-old New York City native began his professional career as a starter, but he struggled with command and saw fluctuating results. A move to the bullpen in 2013 -- and one Tommy John surgery later -- changed that.
"He went into the bullpen and instantly started performing," recalls Yankees pitching coordinator Scott Aldred, who was Betances' pitching coach in 2011, 2012 and 2013 in Triple-A.
To build his confidence and get him acclimated with entering the middle of a game instead of starting it, the organization began the transition by putting Betances into low-leverage situations, games in which the club might be losing by a run or two, to lessen the mental blow should he fail to put up zeros. From there, the new reliever worked his way into the tighter situations he sees today, such as that 1-0 ninth-inning lead over the first-place Blue Jays on Aug. 15.
"In about a three-week period of time, he was showing signs of adjusting real well, and we started giving him some higher-leverage situations," said Aldred. "I think he went on a streak from about somewhere in June to almost the end of the season and didn't allow a run."
Aldred's recollection is nearly spot-on. According to the Yankees' 2016 media guide, Betances allowed only one earned run and struck out 61 batters in his last 22 appearances of 2013, from June 19 to the end of August.
The starter's job description just hadn't been ideal for Betances: six to seven innings of work every five days. Looking back recently from his locker in the Yankees clubhouse, the reliever pinpoints the wait between outings as the culprit -- plus, there is a certain appeal to running out from center field to the mound with the game hanging in the balance.
"For me, I can be more aggressive," Betances said. "I feel like [I'm] a guy that feeds off adrenaline, and I think that's one of the reasons I've been able to be more successful out of the bullpen. And I feel like I get more repetition. … With me, pitching more often, I think that helps me repeat my delivery."
Repeating delivery -- an important aspect of being successful on the mound whether a pitcher is a starter or a reliever -- isn't always easy for tall pitchers.
Yankees bullpen coach Mike Harkey, coming in a few inches under Betances' 6 feet 8 inches, pitched 131 Big League games, mostly as a starter, over eight seasons with the Cubs, Rockies, A's, Angels and Dodgers. He finished his playing career with a 36-36 record and 316 strikeouts. Harkey can vouch for the challenges that come with coordinating a less compact frame and longer limbs.
"We have a little bit more to work with, so being able to repeat a delivery is a little bit hard," he said. "You have to work a little bit harder; you have to simplify it as much as you can to be able to repeat it."
Harkey says Betances has done a great job of finding consistency in his delivery, which the coach describes as a process of trial and error.
"He's gotten a lot of help from a lot of different pitching coaches, and he's finally been able to find a delivery that's proven to be pretty effective for him," said Harkey. "And I think being able to go to the bullpen and not having to worry about starting and being able to last six or seven innings [has helped]. Now, he's able to know he can go out and give it all he's got for hopefully three to six outs."
Harkey -- who is by Betances' side in the bullpen as the reliever warms up, providing scouting reports for the upcoming hitters and helping match Betances' strengths to their weaknesses -- identifies two qualities as necessary for success as a reliever: being prepared every single day and having a short memory.
"He has both of those," said Harkey.
Betances understands the importance of consistency to what he does, and he relies on a daily routine to maintain his mechanics. Like clockwork, he joins his fellow pitchers in right field for stretch -- donning a pair of sneakers for his work on the field and carrying a pair of plastic cleats that he changes into for his bullpen work afterward -- about three hours before first pitch on game days.
The group runs and does some basic stretching to get loose with director of strength and conditioning Matthew Krause before breaking up into pairs to throw. At that point, Betances does long toss with a teammate before shortening up and throwing to one of the bullpen catchers, who catches from the squat position in an exercise referred to as "flat ground" for obvious reasons -- no mound. The exercise is not about unleashing maximum effort, but rather honing delivery, and Betances incorporates a wide stance -- his legs more than shoulder width apart -- that allows him to better focus on finishing his pitches out in front of his body.
"[The wider base] just allows me to kind of like reach out there," he explained. "I have to force myself to get out there more to get the pitches down."
Afterward, he picks up his plastic cleats and in a reverse of the path fans are accustomed to seeing, he walks to the bullpen, where he does some "dry work," practicing his delivery on the mound using a towel instead of a ball.
"It's a dress rehearsal," Rothschild said of the drill. "And it saves your arm because you're not throwing the ball, which helps because as a reliever you kind of have to save as much as you can if you're going to be pitching a lot."
As for the pitches themselves, he maintains his fastball velocity -- something he says he has been blessed to have always had -- with a shoulder program that uses bands, body blades and dumbbells to build strength and stability. His knuckle-curve is more of a "feel pitch," and he throws one or two during his flat-ground work to gauge its temperament.
"He doesn't take anything for granted," said fellow reliever Anthony Swarzak. "He doesn't take a day off. He gets used a lot and works hard and seems like he's always prepared for that big moment. This is my first year here -- this is my first year seeing it -- so I don't know what it was like before, but I know that he is always ready and that means a lot from a teammate-to-teammate kind of thing."
The move to the bullpen and Betances' game-day preparations have paid off. When Yost was rounding out his team in preparation for battle to determine home-field advantage in the World Series, Betances was a must-add for the skipper.
"I love him -- I love having power at the back end of the bullpen," said Yost, who has led his Kansas City Royals to the World Series the last two years, including a championship in 2015, on the strength of his 'pen, practically setting a game standard. "And he definitely provides that. … He throws 96 to 100 mph with a great breaking ball; he's just a guy that I have a lot of trust in, in those situations."
Betances did not let the manager down in San Diego, where the Midsummer Classic was hosted by the Padres at Petco Park on July 12.
The 28-year-old's services were called upon in the seventh inning with the AL leading, 4-2. He allowed one hit and struck out Dodgers infielder Corey Seager on a 99.8-mph fastball and Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado on a 100.4-mph fastball.
"He's nasty," said Orioles infielder and fellow AL All-Star Manny Machado. "Nobody on [the AL] team wants to face him. I think he's struck all of us out, so we're glad that he's on our side, and I'm definitely not looking forward to facing him later on in the year."
In his 10 career plate appearances against Betances through the middle of August, Machado was 1-for-9 with five strikeouts.
Boston's All-Star center fielder, Jackie Bradley Jr., had similar results against the Yankees hurler over the last three years. In eight plate appearances, he was 0-for-7 with a walk and four strikeouts.
"Anyone who's that tall and possesses an upper-90s fastball with a slider-curveball that is as sharp and devastating as his, he's a tough opponent," said Bradley. "He's able to command it. Sometimes, guys like that, you can take away one pitch. With him, you have to honor both."
Mets center fielder Curtis Granderson, who played for the Yankees from 2010-13, when Betances pitched in six games for the big club, most recently faced the reliever on Aug. 1 and struck out. Granderson, whose two previous at-bats against Betances also resulted in strikeouts, finds Betances' fastball to be on par with those of others he has faced who throw in the same velocity range. But the reliever's height -- the same height that once was a stumbling block -- creates an advantage.
"His arms are long, so [the fastball] gets on you just a little bit quicker than some other guys'," said Granderson. "Plus, it's hard. It's not like it's a sneaky 93. It's a legit 97-98 mph, whatever it happens to be, and it's around the strike zone, so now mentally, you're thinking about that, and that keeps you a little bit out front for the curveball that happens to be good and comes out with the same sort of speed and velocity, but obviously has a lot more break."
Leading By Example
With as much success as Betances has enjoyed in his first three full seasons, it wouldn't come as a complete surprise if the reliever walked around with some swagger, wearing his hubris like part of his uniform. But a quick survey of his teammates reveals that couldn't be further from the truth. Humble, sensitive, genuine, happy and quiet -- very quiet -- are just some of the ways he is described.
"To be that good at this level at such a young age, it's amazing to see it because there are a lot of guys in this game that when they have success like that, it tends to change them into something that is not a good teammate or rubs guys the wrong way," said Swarzak. "But he's the exact opposite. It's like he embraces it and wants to be a leader and isn't scared to follow when he needs to, and it's amazing. He's a great guy and a great teammate."
Austin Romine has been on the receiving end of Betances' post-win smiles several times. The catcher has caught about a third of the reliever's innings this season -- including his first two saves of the year -- and has known Betances since 2008, when the two were young in their professional careers and both playing for the Single-A Charleston RiverDogs.
Had Romine caught Betances when he was summoned to protect the Yankees' 1-0 lead over the Blue Jays in mid-August, the catcher likely would have experienced what he has in the past -- regardless of Betances walking that leadoff hitter.
"A weirdly calming feeling when he's on the mound," said Romine. "He's just so -- I don't even know the word. He carries himself very calm when he's out there."
Betances recognized that walking the Blue Jays' Thole brought up two very dangerous hitters in Donaldson and Encarnacion. But he was not nervous, he explains the next day from his locker; in the moment, he just focused on trying to be at his best: dig in, don't give in and make pitches. A step back, a lift of the cap, a one-two wipe of the forehead. He had escaped the jam and took slight comfort in the fact that the Yankees had won. But that night, after the game, Thole was still on his mind, and he didn't sleep much. Being the competitor that he is, he wants to be better. And not just for the next batter, the next inning, the next game, but for a long time to come.
"For me, you know, I'm not satisfied," he said. "I have accomplished a lot of things in my first three years, but at the same time, I know it wasn't easy for me to get up here, so I've got to continue to work and do the best I can, just help the team win. That's my ultimate goal."