CLEVELAND — The Indians are paying Rafael Betancourt $840,000 this season. He’s been worth much more.
“He’s been as consistent as any setup guy that I’ve ever seen at this level,” said Cleveland manager Eric Wedge.
Betancourt flourished in the late-inning role this year, going 5-1 with a 1.47 ERA in 68 regular season appearances
In one of the finest efforts ever by an Indians setup man, Betancourt ranked in the top five in nearly every category for a relief pitcher, including ERA (second), opponents’ batting average (.183, fourth), inherited runners scoring (3-of-33, second), innings pitched (fourth) and strikeouts (80, fifth).
The success has carried into the postseason, where Betancourt entered Game 5 of the ALCS on Thursday without allowing a run and just two hits, while striking out seven in five games (71/3 innings).
In two ALCS appearances covering an inning apiece, Betancourt has retired the side in order, facing Boston’s 2-4 hitters — Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez — on both occasions.
“It would have to be Betancourt,” said reliever Jensen Lewis, when asked to name Cleveland’s ALCS MVP in the bullpen. “My gosh, he’s thrown to the heart of that order over and over again, and come through with flying colors.
“He’s got to be the best setup guy in the league.”
“I don’t think about who I’m facing,” said Betancourt, who had allowed just three earned runs in his last 26 games through Tuesday. “If I start thinking about who they are and what they’ve done, that’s not good. I just go out and try to do my job, block everything else out.”
The quirky right-hander, who battles a nervous tick on the mound and takes an inordinate amount of time between pitches, has been able to achieve the success despite relying on just one pitch most of the time — a fastball that comes in at around 92-94 mph.
“He does mix in a breaking ball or changeup every now and then, which makes him all the more difficult to hit,” Wedge said. “(Location) is the key. The command and the leverage that he throws his fastball with is a big part of what he does.”
Like the majority of relievers in the game, Betancourt has closer aspirations. The Indians avoided arbitration with him last year, but he will be eligible again this offseason, and is expected to command $2-$4 million per season.
Current closer Joe Borowski is under a one-year contract this season, with a $4 million option for 2008 ($250,000 buyout), and Cleveland might consider spending that money on Betancourt.
What’s the point?
Wedge said there would be no retaliation on Ramirez for his elongated pose after hitting a homer off Lewis in the sixth inning of Cleveland’s 7-3 Game 4 victory. Ramirez’s display has been discussed since postgame interviews Tuesday night.
“It’s a non-issue,” Wedge said. “Our focus is on getting outs and winning ballgames.”
Had it taken place in the regular season, Wedge said his team would have had the same reaction.
“I think people have a pretty good understanding of who Manny is,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an agenda-type thing with him.”
Fans greeted Ramirez with a lusty round of boos when he stepped to the plate for the first time Thursday, chanting “Manny (stinks), Manny (stinks).”
A new man
Indians shortstop Jhonny Peralta’s reversal of fortunes this season has earned Wedge’s respect. That wasn’t always the case last year, when Peralta struggled with a lackadaisical approach and his manager admitted to getting in his face.
“Ultimately, you try different approaches, depending on the player,” Wedge said. “We had moments last year. But you know what, the kid always looked me in the eye and didn’t back down from anything. It was a gut check time for him.”
A year removed from a breakout season, Peralta hit just .257 with 13 homers and 68 RBIs in 2006, improving to .270 with 21 homers and 72 RBIs this year. His production has carried into the postseason, where he entered Thursday batting .406 (13-for-32) with two homers and nine RBIs in eight games.
Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, who took plenty of criticism during the rebuilding process, said the most gratifying aspect of his team’s postseason run has been the contributions it has received from nearly every player on the roster.
“We built this thing to be a team that wins together and that’s exactly what they’re doing,” Shapiro said. “The satisfying thing has been the way they’ve won.”
Cleveland overcame plenty of obstacles to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2001, including the snowed-out home-opening series, home games relocated to Milwaukee, injuries to two of their starting pitchers and a collective offensive funk shortly after the all-star break.
“We’ve had every opportunity to make valid excuses,” Shapiro said. “Our guys have never taken the excuses. They’ve taken them as challenges.”
The ALCS managers had different approaches to handling questions regarding Joe Torre’s decision to turn down a one-year, $5-million contract offer from the Yankees. The longtime New York skipper would have been taking a $2 million pay cut.
“I know there’s a business side of it, but from what I understand, for him to look at that and say no, good for him,” Wedge said. “He’s earned and deserves to do whatever the (heck) he wants to do.
“I’ve got nothing but great things to say about Joe Torre. I believe someone that’s accomplished as much as he has should manage as long as he wants to. He’s one of the greatest managers of all time.”
With his team on the brink of elimination, Boston manager Terry Francona, who said he called Torre’s cell phone after the Yankees’ loss to Cleveland in the ALDS, chose to focus on the task in front of his club.
“This is sort of a big day for us to try to win this game,” he said. “This probably isn’t the time (to discuss Torre). We need to win this game tonight, or I might be getting phone calls. Joe might be calling me.”
Should the Indians advance to play the Rockies in the World Series, the two teams will be making Fall Classic history.
Dating back to 1997, the beginning of the free-agent era, there has never been a World Series that matched teams from the bottom eight in the payroll department. At $54.4 million, the Rockies have the sixth-lowest payroll in baseball, while the Indians own the eighth-lowest at $61.6 million.
Overall, there has only been one World Series matchup that pitted teams in the bottom half of the payroll pile, and it took place in 1991, when the Braves (19th of 26 teams) played the Twins (15th of 26 teams).
The Indians will work out today in Boston before Game 6 on Saturday (8:23 p.m.) at Fenway Park.
• Entering Thursday, Cleveland had won 18 of its last 21 playoff games at Jacobs Field, including five straight. Boston had dropped seven of its last nine postseason games at The Jake.
• Figure skating legend Scott Hamilton, a Bowling Green grad, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.