What exactly has gone wrong with a pitcher who looked like a sure thing to be anointed their next closer in his second year of big-league ball?
In his second-to-last outing of the spring, Betances pitched a scoreless inning for the first time since March 11, snapping a string of five straight appearances in which he had allowed a run. For a closer in the regular season, that could translate to a couple of blown saves, or maybe even five in a row.
But despite not allowing a run, Betances' penultimate outing could hardly have been termed impressive; he walked two of the five batters he faced, went to 3-1 on another and threw just five of his 13 pitches for strikes. And once again, his fastball velocity was nowhere near what it was last year, topping out at 92 mph but mostly sitting around 90.
It is legitimate to ask if Betances would have made the Yankees last year with this kind of a spring. The answer is, probably not. He likely would have been sent back across the street, the way Chase Whitley and Bryan Mitchell and Kyle Davies and Jacob Lindgren and Nick Rumbelow were this week, with words of encouragement from the manager and GM and assurances he would get another shot next year.
This year, Betances' spot in the bullpen was assured based on what he did in the 2014 season, when he was unquestionably the best pitcher on the Yankees' staff and one of the top five relief pitchers in all of baseball. But he has yet to convince Joe Girardi to give him what once seemed like his entitlement, the closer's job, and there is a real possibility it will go to Andrew Miller instead. Miller has had a good but not eye-popping spring -- 1-0, a 2.57 ERA, just five hits allowed in seven innings, eight strikeouts and two walks -- but right now, you just can't see the Yankees entrusting a ninth-inning to the Betances we've seen this spring.
Betances said he saw positive signs in his outing Thursday; besides not allowing a run after the Pittsburgh Pirates got runners to first and third with two outs, Betances said he felt a little stronger than he has in recent appearances and is beginning to see improvement after slight adjustments to his mechanics.
"Yeah, I'll be ready," he said. "I think right now it's just one small adjustment. My command in the spring hasn't been where it needs to be. I think that's an easy fix. But I feel good. I'm going to get stronger because I'm a slow starter in spring training as far as velocity."
Betances is scheduled to throw once more this spring, against the Washington Nationals in D.C. in the spring finale Saturday, then it's on to Yankee Stadium. But maybe not in the spot many expected him to be in, on the mound in the ninth inning with the game on the line.
"Obviously that's an important role, we all know that," he said. "I don't know if that's the role I'm going to get, but if I do get that opportunity, I'm going to try to have a clear mind and just treat it the same way when I'm out there. At the same time, me or whoever it is, we're just trying to help the team win. If we can hand each other the baton in the bullpen, I think we'll have a pretty good chance to win a lot of ballgames."