Betancourt a high point in Rockies' season

Betancourt a high point in Rockies' season

Betancourt a high point in Rockies' season
DENVER -- With a depleted lineup and ineffective starting pitching, there's no doubt many Rockies actually welcomed the end of the 2011 season, but right-handed reliever Rafael Betancourt was a notable exception.

Betancourt, 36, noted that his preparation is geared toward pitching now. And although the Rockies finished well out of the playoffs, he had a postseason-worthy finish.

Named closer on Aug. 9 when Huston Street was injured, Betancourt finished the year by converting all but one of his nine save chances. From the beginning of August, he gave up five hits and no walks, and struck out 25 in 20 1/3 innings, and he ended the season with nine scoreless appearances. The hot streak started long before he was named closer, as evidenced by his 0.33 ERA in 29 games after the All-Star break.

"I'm not preparing for 162 games or Spring Training plus 162 games," Betancourt said. "I prepare myself for playoffs, World Series, whatever I need to play. I have to be ready."

He'll just have to save the high-quality pitching for next year.

As was just about everyone around the Rockies, Betancourt was perplexed that the team finished fourth in the National League West after having been picked by many experts to win the division. But he said the Rockies might not have been as far off as their 73-89 record suggested.

Early in the season, starters Ubaldo Jimenez (now with the Indians) and Jorge De La Rosa (who underwent surgery on his left elbow in May and might not return until at least a couple of months into the 2012 season) battled injuries at the same time. The season ended with Carlos Gonzalez (right wrist), Troy Tulowitzki (left groin), Todd Helton (back) and Jason Giambi (back) all off the field.

"The first thing that needs to come together is, we need to be healthy," Betancourt said. "Health is very important. You're going to have some injuries sometimes during a season, but not real, longtime injuries -- maybe two weeks or whatever, but not too many guys at the same time.

"Besides that, we need to get our confidence back, thinking every time we come to the ballpark, we're going to win games. That's what we have to think when we come here."

Betancourt's strong season -- 2-0, 2.89 ERA in 68 appearances -- is the starting point in any discussion of what is right about a Rockies team that needs to improve in many areas. Street was less than dominant, giving up a career-high 10 home runs, but he was 29-for-33 on save opportunities. Right-handed setup man Matt Belisle had his second straight solid season, righty Matt Lindstrom had some strong runs when not battling nagging pains, and rookie left-hander Rex Brothers and second-year lefty Matt Reynolds showed promise. The Rockies didn't have many leads late in the season, but they protected them effectively.

Barring a trade, Betancourt and Street will be back next year and could face off in a competition for the closer role. Both are heading into the final year of their contracts, with Betancourt due $4 million and Street receiving $7.5 million.

Manager Jim Tracy looks at both as an area of strength.

"To have an option available where you have two guys that can legitimately pitch the ninth inning, that's a major strength," Tracy said. "We have a very good bullpen."

The idea of Betancourt being in the ninth-inning discussion intrigues Tracy. Before joining the Rockies in a 2009 trade with the Indians, Betancourt faltered when given opportunities to close games. And until the second half of 2011, when he saw Betancourt display a fastball at 94 mph -- a tick faster than earlier in the season -- and spot his slider, Tracy avoided using him at the end of games.

"It was a tall hurdle to get him over, and that is getting him involved in the ninth inning," Tracy said. "I see a guy that's beginning to become very comfortable. The body of work is evidence of that."

Betancourt said that it's more important to keep pitching well than to think about his role next year.

"I just look at myself as one of the pitchers on this team, one of the relievers," he said. "The front office, manager, coaches, I don't really worry about that. I just worry about when I have to pitch. That's it."

The team could take a lesson from Betancourt when it comes to minimizing slumps.

From June 12 to July 6, Betancourt gave up 11 earned runs in 9 2/3 innings. Three of the seven homers he yielded during the season came during this stretch. His final numbers would have looked much better, and possibly would have made more people notice him, if not for this mini-struggle.

"I have a lot of goals in my career, in my life," Betancourt said. "One is, I don't want people to say I had a good second half, but [that] I had a great season. Consistency is very important for me. I don't want to have a great two months, three months. I want to do it for six months of the year.

"When that happened, I got mad. I don't like that. I wasn't doing my job. So I put something extra into it. I don't know. I come here every day, think about what I have to do, and I love what I do."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.