Dellin Betances throws 100 mph with a brain-freezing mid-80s breaking ball that defies the laws of physics. And yet, most days, the only firewall standing between him and humiliation is the rocket arm of Gary Sanchez, who can intimidate baserunners into staying put — or penalize them for running.
During the eighth inning of Saturday’s game against the Blue Jays, however, Betances suffered a meltdown so complete that not even Sanchez could protect his friend.
Betances was well into his spiral by the time Kevin Pillar reached third base. He already had surrendered a tiebreaking leadoff homer by Yangervis Solarte and three stolen bases in the eighth, but a 4-3 deficit didn’t feel impossible to overcome.
Then Betances began to let his 0-and-2 count slip away against No. 9 hitter Gift Ngoepe, who already had whiffed in his previous two at-bats. Two more balls evened the count, and that’s when Pillar got into Betances’ head, jitterbugging off third, stretching a 10-foot lead to 20, then doing the unimaginable — dashing for the plate.
Whatever Betances was thinking at that moment, it wasn’t about Pillar, who was so far ahead of him that the only thing left to do was panic. As soon as Betances caught a glimpse of him, he stepped off the rubber, then hastily fired a wild throw to the plate that wasn’t anywhere close to Sanchez.
Pillar stole home standing up, becoming the first Jay to execute the play since Aaron Hill in 2007. For Betances, it was the final indignity. He stole three bases in that inning alone, but swiping home — against a righthander, no less — was demoralizing.
“My main focus is on the hitter,” Betances said. “I thought he was definitely trying to distract me with two strikes. It was really a savvy move by him. Next time I’ll be more aware of it.”
If Betances is going to be that oblivious to baserunners, he can count on there being a next time. When asked if he would have been better off throwing a strike rather than stepping off the rubber, he insisted he had no choice. In his view, Pillar still would have stolen home or he would have balked. “At that point, I rushed the throw,” he said. “I didn’t have a good grip on it.”
Aaron Boone, still new to the whole Betances experience, searched for positives, such as the fact that he’s at least throwing strikes. Still, the new manager pushed his luck with the shaky Betances by using him for a second inning after Sanchez bailed him out in the seventh.
After Curtis Granderson led off that inning with a single, Betances froze Josh Donaldson with a 98-mph fastball and — despite Granderson’s big lead and a looping breaking pitch — Sanchez made a perfect throw to foil a stolen-base attempt.
With the score still tied in the eighth, Boone chose to stick with Betances — he said he would have gone with Chad Green if the Yankees had gone ahead — and that decision quickly went sideways.
Betances immediately fell behind 2-and-0 to Solarte, who hammered a 97-mph heater into the Flight Deck in centerfield.
Betances struck out Randal Grichuk, but Pillar smacked a 99-mph fastball for a single, and the circus kicked in from there. Betances whiffed Aledmys Diaz, but Pillar was off to the races, and a walk to Luke Maille further complicated matters.
Right before Pillar stole home, pitching coach Larry Rothschild could be seen in the dugout, shaking his head. “We’ll continue to work with him,” Boone said. “We’ll continue to believe in him. We’ll continue to need him in big situations.”
Betances, when right, is one of the most dangerous bullpen weapons in the game. But Joe Girardi had no choice but to abandon him during last October’s playoff run — Betances walked two without getting an out in Game 4 of the ALDS vs. the Indians — and this season is off to a sketchy start.
On Opening Day, Betances came in with a 5-0 lead and teed up a home run by Pillar, the first batter he faced. That’s two homers in two games for Betances before the end of March. Last year, he didn’t give up his second until Sept. 4.
“I’ve got full confidence in Dellin,” Brian Cashman said. “Today notwithstanding.”
Actions speak louder than words. Let’s see when (and where) Betances pitches next.