Things had to change -- soon. For Dellin Betances, there was really no other option. His arm felt as strong as it ever had. And although the results weren't ideal by any means, he felt good about the pitches he was throwing. So how did the four-time All-Star turn around what began as a disastrous 2018 season, re-establishing himself as one of the most dominant, unhittable relievers in Major League Baseball?
"It was just a matter of going out there and believing in the stuff I have," Betances says. "Even when I was going through my struggles, it was the best I had ever felt. Things just weren't going as well as I wanted them to. I knew it would change; I believed that."
The hulking right-hander went through some struggles down the stretch last September, allowing six earned runs in 41⁄3 innings over a 10-day period. After giving up just one home run during the first five months of 2017, he served up longballs in back-to-back games on Sept. 4 and 5. And while he seemed to regain his form in the final two weeks of the regular season, the postseason proved to be something altogether different.
Removed from his customary set-up role, Betances was mostly relegated to low- leverage situations come October. He battled command issues, walking five batters in his four postseason innings.
"At the end of last year, I think he got tired," says Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild. "When you're tall and you have long levers, that's going to affect you."
Betances came into this season with a fresh outlook, ready to put the end of last year behind him. He was encouraged both by the way he felt and the fact that he walked just two batters while striking out 15 in 62⁄3 Grapefruit League innings.
That's what made the first month of this season so confounding for the 30-year-old.
Kevin Pillar hit his first pitch of the season out of the park, Toronto's lone run in the Yankees' 6-1 Opening Day victory at Rogers Centre. Two days later, Betances entered a tie game in the seventh inning. He made quick work of the Blue Jays in the seventh, but Yangervis Solarte led off the eighth with a home run, then Pillar singled and stole three bases, swiping home to cap Betances's eventful inning.
On April 13, the right-hander entered a game in Detroit with a five-run lead and promptly gave up three runs on five hits against the Tigers. Betances served up a leadoff homer to Jeimer Candelario -- his third home run allowed in six appearances. That matched his total from all of 2017, an obvious cause for concern. But to the pitcher, it was clear that his problems were not the same as the ones he had battled only six months earlier.
"Last year when I struggled, it was with walks; I'd put a lot of guys on, and I would get in trouble that way," Betances says. "Early this year, I was giving up some early home runs and hits. Balls found holes, and although it wasn't the result I wanted, I knew I was throwing strikes. I knew I was right there."
"He's not a guy that gives up home runs, usually," Rothschild says. "The counts he was getting into, like a lot of power guys, it just took him a while to get going. He's a big, tall, strong kid. Sometimes it takes him a while. I didn't feel like he was in a bad place."
In his first few weeks as the Yankees' manager, Aaron Boone was just getting a feel for his team, and while the initial results had not been what he was hoping for, the neophyte skipper saw more than enough to remain confident in Betances's long-term ability.
"He gave up those three homers, but I looked at those as three bad pitches," Boone says. "He was trying to get ahead, and a guy ambushed him. To us, it wasn't telling the story; more importantly, to him, it wasn't telling the story."
"I knew it was early in the season, so I kept telling myself that I had time to figure it out," Betances says. "I felt my stuff was right there; it was just a matter of results. The coaches kept running me back out there, which made me feel good."
Betances didn't allow an earned run over his next seven outings, but he wasn't quite out of the woods just yet. He continued to fine-tune his delivery, speeding up his leg kick at Rothschild's suggestion. But there was another change he needed to address if he was to return to the form that had landed him in four consecutive All-Star Games.
"Early on," Betances says, "I was throwing a lot of breaking balls, and the couple hitters that I did throw fastballs to were hitting them; that made me go even more to the breaking ball. I realized I was pretty much telling the hitters what was coming. I knew my fastball was good, but I got to a point where I threw like 14 breaking balls in my last 18 pitches. I was getting too predictable, so I knew I had to change that."
Following a game at Yankee Stadium in mid-April, Betances's brother Anthony asked him why he seemed to be shying away from his fastball. According to FanGraphs, his average velocity of 98.4 mph in 2017 ranked sixth among all big league hurlers with at least 50 innings of work, so why not challenge hitters with it more often?
"My brother gave me some heat after the game," Betances says. "He said, 'Man, you have to use your fastball a little more.' Then I had a conversation with [Aroldis] Chapman, and he basically said the same thing. He said some hitters ask him why I rely on the breaking ball so much when I have that powerful fastball. I knew I had to mix up my pitches more."
"I think he simplified things a little bit; he was able to make some adjustments and clean things up," Rothschild says. "I think his arm strength came around, so the fastball played along with the breaking ball. Some guys can get away with one pitch, but he's got two pitches that are well above average. His breaking ball, when it's right, is as good as any I've ever seen."
On May 6, Betances took over for Domingo German after the rookie had twirled six no-hit innings against the Indians. Betances fanned Jose Ramirez and Michael Brantley before keeping the no-no intact with a ground ball off the bat of Edwin Encarnacion.
The no-hitter ended with Yonder Alonso's ground-ball single to right field, the first of three straight singles allowed by Betances to start the eighth, none of which was hit particularly hard. Three runs would eventually score, making for an unsightly pitching line for Betances, but the reality of his outing showed that he wasn't relapsing into his early-April form.
Or was he? Four days later, Betances pitched a perfect seventh against the Red Sox, who held a 4-0 lead. The Yankees battled back with four runs in the bottom of the inning to tie the game, but the good feelings dissipated quickly when Betances served up a leadoff home run to J.D. Martinez in the eighth. That turned out to be the decisive run, leaving Betances with an unusually high 5.62 ERA through 15 outings.
Carsten Sabathia, one of Betances's closest friends on the team, said the reliever "never changed at all" during his ups and downs. His well-regarded work ethic never wavered, leaving teammates confident that he would right the ship.
"When you know you're good, you're only going to [stink] for so long," Sabathia says. "At the same time, you can't just sit there and say, 'I'll come out of it.' You have to work to come out of it, so there are a couple of stages you go through when you're struggling. I think he handled it all well."
"The thing that made us feel good is that even though he wasn't getting results early, he felt like he was finding himself from a delivery standpoint," Boone says. "I think he was gaining confidence, even when the results weren't there early."
Rothschild and bullpen coach Mike Harkey continued to work closely with Betances, who wasn't as far away from his old self as the statistics might have suggested.
"When you talk about Dellin, this is a guy who has been an All-Star four straight times, and he's overcome a lot of stuff," Rothschild says. "He [struggled in the Minors] as a starter and didn't have success before really finding his niche at an unbelievable pace in the bullpen. He's overcome adversity. You can't do what he's done in this game without being highly competitive and getting after it the way he does."
"Me doing what I've done the past few years, it obviously helped because I knew what I was capable of when I was on my game," Betances says. "I knew the results would change as long as I continued to believe in my stuff."
That belief was rooted in four years of history, and it would prove to be justified.
Betances relied on his blazing fastball more often from that point forward, throwing it 53 percent of the time as compared to only 37 percent during his first 15 appearances, according to Brooks Baseball. He and Harkey would game-plan each hitter as the game went on and it became apparent which part of the lineup he might be facing.
Although Boone had tried to allow Betances to work out the kinks in low- leverage situations early in the season, the manager was anxious to get Betances back into his customary late-inning spot. The Yankees were off to a superb start as a team, but Boone knew his squad would not be able to reach its peak until Betances was setting up Chapman with regularity.
"I know how important he is to our club," Boone says. "I knew what he was capable of, so I was eager to get him back into that more settled, high-leverage spot. From my own experience, when you're winning, it makes it easier to go through some struggles and find your way. I think that, hopefully, was one of the things that allowed him to get to that place a lot quicker."
Beginning with his outing against the Athletics on May 12, Betances went on a tear he called the best of his career. In 21 outings through July 4, he allowed one run in 212⁄3 innings, which calculates to a miniscule 0.42 ERA. Opposing hitters were batting only .060 (4-for-67) with one extra-base hit and an absurdly low .075 slugging percentage.
"This is the best I've felt in a long time," Betances says with a smile.
"He's trusting his fastball a lot more and going to it a lot more; he believes in it, and I think it's as good as it's ever been," Boone says. "His delivery has been simplified, and he's repeating it; it can be that simple. Now we're seeing stuff as good as anyone in the game. And because he's repeating his delivery, the consistency has been there and the dominance has followed. He started having a little success, and it snowballed because his stuff is so good."
As impressive as Betances's personal numbers were during his resurgent stretch, the most important statistic of that period was 18-3. That was the Yankees' record in those 21 games as the Bombers established themselves as one of the premier teams in the league, priming themselves for a dramatic second half against the Red Sox.
"He's a game-changer," Boone says. "Dellin throwing the way he's thrown, it makes us potentially really special. If we're going to win a world championship, Dellin Betances needs to be a big part of it because he's that impactful and that dynamic a guy when he's right."