Rehab for Rafael
Betancourt traveling with GJ Rockies to build up arm strength as he comes back from Tommy John surgery
Rafael Betancourt climbed on the bus with the Grand Junction Rockies on Wednesday night, bound for Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Not many 11-year Major League Baseball veterans would willingly go on a Rookie level road trip, even when they’re on a rehab assignment.
“I was in Denver the last couple of weeks, and they asked me if I want to do this,” Betancourt said Wednesday before Grand Junction’s game against Ogden. “I said, ‘You know, I have to do it.’ I’m in the process right now of facing hitters. The Rockies went to Milwaukee (after Wednesday’s game), they’re going to be out of town the next week, and I don’t have anybody to throw with over there.
“The team wants me to come over here and go with the team because I have two more live (batting practice sessions) and I have to throw.
“It’s nine hours; I have to do it. It’s part of life and what I need to do to get back.”
The Colorado Rockies’ former closer had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow last September and signed a minor league contract with the club this spring.
After four weeks in extended spring training, where he worked out with many of this year’s GJ Rockies, he headed to Denver and threw two batting practice sessions the past week.
After a 26-pitch session last Friday, he said his arm was sore the next day.
“It’s very funny, the first time I threw BP last Friday I was very sore the next day, tight. They said it was normal,” Betancourt said. “Tommy John, this is how you’re going to feel maybe the rest of the year. It takes a while to feel normal.”
He threw 32 pitches Tuesday and Wednesday had no soreness. He’ll throw batting practice in Idaho Falls on Friday and again Monday in Orem, Utah. After that, he hopes he’ll be ready to pitch in a game.
At 39 years old, when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow toward the end of last season, many thought his career was over. Not Betancourt.
“I always say stuff happens for a reason. It’s not like you’re looking for something like this to make you push harder or make you work harder, but it happened to me,” he said. “They were thinking, ‘Maybe he’s done.’ I’m 39. I don’t want to go out like this. I want to come back and pitch whatever years I have left.”
Rehab from Tommy John surgery usually takes 12 months or longer. Betancourt is nine months and one week removed from surgery. The long scar is still visible and still tingles some, but he said every day he feels more like himself. He’d like to be back in the big leagues in September, if not before.
“I put a lot into rehab,” he said. “A lot of people told me, ‘Don’t rush.’ I said, ‘I’m not rushing, I just go on how I feel every day.’ I feel very good. That’s probably why I’m ahead of the time they give you.”
During extended spring training, if his arm hurt, he backed off, not wanting to re-injure the elbow. Over the next couple of weeks, he wants to build up his arm strength to the point where he can feel his arm start to get tired.
“I want to get to that feeling and know I can pitch more than that,” he said. “One inning is 15 to 20 pitches. Your arm is used to throwing more than that.”
Betancourt is expected to stay with Grand Junction for two-and-a-half to three weeks. He’s not sure of his next stop, but he is hoping he can move from here to Colorado Springs and not have to leave Colorado to get his work in.
“A reliever is a little different,” he said. “For me, I need to face hitters. I know Rookie ball is different than Double A or Triple A. This is like spring training for me right now. Levels are different, but I don’t care. I worry about what I need to do.”
He said working on his location against hitters and building his arm strength are his priorities, and whether he does that in Idaho Falls, Grand Junction or Colorado Springs doesn’t matter. Once he gets into games, he’ll pitch out of the bullpen.
“I’m going to do like a normal game. I don’t want to go out and say I need to start,” he said. “I want them to do what they need to do. I’m not the only one on the team. If I have to pitch in the seventh or eighth, whatever it is, I don’t want to take anyone away from their routine.”
A native of Venezuela, Betancourt knows what many of the players are going through being in the United States for the first time.
“When I first got here everything was different,” he said. “I was 18 years old, the language, the country, the food, everything. You have to get used to all that. It’s a different living. I came from Venezuela, and I knew what I wanted to do here.
“When I was in Arizona (this spring), I was talking more like a friend. I don’t want to sit next to a guy for an hour and tell them what they need to do. I want them to see me and see what I do.”
Betancourt fractured his right elbow in 2001 and wondered then what he would do if he couldn’t play baseball again. He played winter ball in 2002, signed a minor league deal with Cleveland and was in the big leagues in July of 2003. Getting there was a 10-year process from when he signed, and he’s not ready to leave yet.
“I still want to play. I think I can still pitch in the big leagues,” Betancourt said. “I don’t want to finish my career the way it happened. That’s why I want to come back.”