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Betancourt, Belisle set the tone in Rockies bullpen

Betancourt, Belisle set the tone in Rockies bullpen

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Sometimes you wonder how much better off the world would be if everyone simply played catch like Rockies veteran relief pitchers Rafael Betancourt and Matt Belisle.

The intricacies of every movement of arm and body have a purpose, not just on some throws but every single one. Since Betancourt arrived in a trade with the Indians in 2009, the pair have learned what every throw looks like when it goes right. If something has gone wrong, they know one another's checkpoints.

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"If he sees something I'm doing wrong, he'll tell me," Betancourt said. "We talk a lot. We're almost the same kind of pitchers."

Actually, they're almost the same guy, when it comes to preparation. Betancourt has a routine involving exercise bands that is a must, and it's a huge key to a healthy arm. Belisle's attention to diet, maintenance exercise and rest is matchless. Sometimes they do cardio exercise together. Guys that dedicated and meticulous should work together as often as possible.

"He's helped me with that whole idea of sticking to what you know works but also adapting to the big leagues as you move on because you want to stay here," Belisle said. "Those are simple, but a lot of it is mental, rather than physical. I look to a guy like that for his mental training more so than his physical."

It also helps that they are effective. Betancourt, who turns 38 on April 29, converted 31 of 37 save opportunities last year and has a 2.95 ERA and 7.52 strikeouts for every walk since joining the Rockies. Belisle, who turns 33 on June 6 and was mostly a starter with the Reds in 2003 and 2005-08, has been durable to the tune of 230 appearances over the last three years, including a National League-leading 80 last year as a right-handed setup man.

Their dependability makes them leaders, not only in the bullpen but among players throughout the clubhouse.

"They're models of consistency when it comes to their routines on a daily basis," Rockies pitching coach Jim Wright said. "Other guys see that the reason they have the tenure is their work habits never change. They don't take one day for granted."

Their presence is an intriguing dynamic on a staff that will be entirely populated with younger pitchers -- unless Miguel Batista, 41, makes the team as a non-roster invitee.

The message from Wright and assistant pitching coach Bo McLaughlin is simple, almost elementary: Keep the ball low and force ground balls. But Betancourt and Belisle are advanced, in that they've proven at the Major League level that they can hit each of the extreme corners of the strike zone.

Belisle fits the ground-ball pitcher mold that the Rockies have determined is ideal -- to the tune of 1.34 per fly ball for his career. However, Betancourt doesn't, producing twice as many fly balls as grounders.

But both aren't afraid to break from traditional strategy and seek the strikeout. Betancourt has a sparkling 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings over his career, and in the last three seasons, Belisle's strikeouts-per-nine rates were 8.9, 7.3 and 7.8.

They know themselves, but they are smart enough to add a wrinkle when necessary.

Betancourt said the way the ball can fly at Coors Field plays a small role in his strategy, but not to the point that it costs him his conviction in his pitch choices.

"I'm trying to throw quality strikes -- throw the pitch where I want it, like I've done my whole career," he said. "If I need a ground ball, I've got to find a way to do it, but I don't change the way I pitch. That's an adjustment, and that's different."

Belisle said succeeding long-term is a matter of not being too stubborn to learn.

"You realize what your guns are, and most people don't stray too far away from those guns, but it's unwise for someone to lean on those too heavily and find complacency in just thinking you can continue to do the same thing over and over without some adaptation," Belisle said. "One of my mentors is Raffy. A lot of people look at the simple approach he's had, and executed well it really works. But you also look at Raffy last year, and he threw more offspeed pitches than he ever has."

Wright said having leaders who can pitch outside of the ideal merely enhance the team's philosophy, not threaten it.

"You want a pitcher to get where he's his own coach, and he's able to make adjustments on the fly, pitch to pitch, to know that they trust their stuff and trust their delivery," Wright said. "They don't get caught up in the mechanics of it. They make the adjustment right now.

"Most of these guys can in the bullpen. They can do it in the bullpen, but they need to do it in the game, trust that it's the same in the game as playing catch."

Now it's up to the younger pitcher to watch and learn from the way Betancourt and Belisle not only play catch, but prepare, think and pitch.

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.

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