Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 63
Bob Toth | On 23, Jan 2020
Baseball takes little time off in between seasons, so neither can we. Follow along at Did the Tribe Win Last Night as we count down to March 26, when the Cleveland Indians host the Detroit Tigers for game one of the 2020 season. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 63 days
While not necessarily a number one would expect to see on the diamond, 63 has had some good years on the shores of Cleveland. Six different men have worn it during a Major League game while representing the Indians, including left-handed reliever Josh Smith a season ago.
Late to arrive on the big league stage, Smith did not provide the kinds of numbers as his predecessors with the Indians. After spending seven years in the minors (and each of the previous year at the Triple-A level at some point), the former Rule 5 pick left the Boston Red Sox organization as a free agent and signed a minor league deal with the Indians in December of 2018. The agreement included a non-roster invitation to spring training.
The southpaw was not able to crack the club’s bullpen during the spring and opened the season back at the Triple-A level for a fourth time. He had success for Columbus and, on May 25, his contract was purchased by the Indians from the Clippers.
He made a pair of appearances at the end of the month before being optioned back to Columbus, which became his new routine over the next few months. He was recalled for two weeks in mid-June and two more days a few days after. He was back for another week in August before returning to Columbus, but instead of getting a call-up in September like a handful of his Clippers teammates, he was designated for assignment midway through the month and was claimed off of waivers by Miami. After making eight appearances with the Indians, he worked six more times with the Marlins to close out the year.
The 2019 International League All-Star did not have a decision with Cleveland, posting a 5.40 ERA and a 1.92 WHIP over eight and one-third innings with 12 strikeouts and eight walks. For Miami, he did not factor in a decision while providing an 8.31 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP in four and one-third innings.
He was selected off of waivers by the Cincinnati Reds from the Marlins on October 16.
Smith’s short stint with the Tribe ended some successful years by those wearing the number 63 for the club.
Eric Bell was the first Cleveland Indians player to wear 63 when he took the mound for the Tribe as a reliever in 1991 and 1992, working in 17 games (making just one start) and posting a 4-2 record with a 3.78 ERA in those two years. Andrew Lorraine brought the number back to begin the next decade during his ten-game stay as a reliever for the club in 2000. Once Victor Martinez debuted the number in his first dozen Major League games in 2002, he set the future trend for excellence for the number in Indians history.
Martinez, the Venezuelan-born catching prospect, was a September call-up that season after being signed as an amateur free agent by the team in 1996. He would sport the number just that season, later switching to 20 for the 2003 season before settling into the 41 that he wore for the remainder of his career.
Another Venezuelan, this time a pitcher, would make the number memorable midway through the 2003 season. He remains the WAR leader in the number, spending his entire 12-year career in the number 63 while posting a career WAR of 14.07.
Right-hander Rafael Betancourt was signed by the Red Sox as an amateur free agent late in the 1993 season. He joined the Sox not as a pitcher, but as a light-hitting infielder, spending parts of three seasons in Rookie and A-ball playing at second, short, and third base.
The problem for Betancourt was that he couldn’t hit well and he couldn’t play without errors in the field, both fairly important parts of being a professional infielder. After three years on the farm, he hit a combined .195 and, in those years, he committed four errors in 27 games at third base, six errors in 36 games at second, and 22 errors in 79 games at short. So, in 1997, the club converted him to pitcher to capitalize on an otherwise strong arm.
He spent three seasons pitching for the Red Sox, climbing to Double-A, but went overseas to Yokohama of the Japan Central League in 2000. He returned in 2001 to the Red Sox, but became a free agent after the season.
The Indians found their diamond in the rough when they signed him as a free agent early in 2003. His results were far better in a new home than they were while in the Boston organization, as he earned 16 saves in 31 games for Double-A Akron, posting a 1.99 ERA and striking out 75 batters in 45 1/3 innings before being promoted to Triple-A Buffalo. After four games there, he was promoted to Cleveland, never to return to the minors for reason other than rehab assignments.
Betancourt became the bridge in the Indians bullpen, setting the stage for setup man David Riske and closer Danys Baez in 2003. He continued to excel as a late inning reliever for manager Eric Wedge, used to set up Riske and closer Bob Wickman when he returned in July. During the 2005 season when coming in during the seventh inning, he struck out 22 of 89 batters while walking just one. The next season, he struggled some and was used a lot by Wedge in games in which the club was trailing, so he earned just seven holds that season.
“For three years [1998-2000], I pitched in pain,” said Betancourt in a story in the August 11, 2003, edition of The Plain Dealer. “All I was hoping for after the surgery was to get another chance. It took 16 months of rehabilitation to come back after the surgery. I didn’t know if I would come back healthy enough to ever pitch in the big leagues. For three years before the surgery, I was not able to throw a breaking ball because of the pain. I’d go into games not only having to think about the batter, but about the pain. My mind was going crazy.
“Now, I am able to worry only about the batter.”
The 2007 season thrust him onto the map. He appeared in a career-high tying 68 games and earned three saves while posting a 5-1 record and a 1.47 ERA. He struck out 80 batters (a personal single-season best at the time) in 79 1/3 innings and limited the opposition with a 0.76 WHIP. More importantly, in addition to matching four years of holds in one season’s work with 31, he allowed just 9% of inherited runners to score as only three of 33 touched home plate with him on the mound. His strong setup work allowed Joe Borowski to save 45 games and helped the Indians reach the American League Championship Series.
The numbers for “Raffy Right” bloated in 2008, as he went 3-4 with four saves and he had a 5.07 ERA while continuing to team with “Raffy Left”, Rafael Perez, out of the bullpen. Prior to the trade deadline in 2009, a restructuring Indians team sent the 34-year-old reliever, one with a steadily climbing contract, to the Colorado Rockies for minor leaguer Connor Graham. Betancourt left Cleveland as the club’s single-season leader for holds with 31 (broken by Vinnie Pestano in 2012) and all-time leader in the stat with 84 (broken by Joe Smith in 2013).
He continued wearing 63 with the Rockies, where he remained after the trade while working for stretches as the team’s closer. He returned for a final MLB season in 2015 and struggled after Tommy John surgery limited him to just 21 minor league appearances the season before.
The number 63 did not go unused by the Indians for long, as just over a week after Betancourt’s trade, the Indians acquired relief pitcher Justin Masterson and he claimed the number for his own.
Masterson came to Cleveland, eight days after Betancourt departed, in the trade that incidentally sent Martinez to Boston. He had worn 63 in his first two campaigns for the Red Sox and continued to do so with the Indians, even while struggling to adapt as a full-time starter (going 1-7 with a 4.55 ERA in eleven games).
The big right-hander went 6-13 with a 4.70 ERA in 34 games in 2010, but turned it around in 2011, posting his first winning season since his rookie year with a 12-10 record and a much better 3.21 ERA in 34 games. In 2012, he was 11-15 with a 4.93 ERA, but he led the league with 34 starts and was the team’s Opening Day starter.
Like Betancourt, Masterson made his mark on a team headed to the postseason. In 2013, he made the All-Star team for the first time in his career. He was the team’s Opening Day starter again and was 10-7 at the break with a 3.72 ERA and had 137 strikeouts in 135 1/3 innings. He threw a five-hit shutout in April, a four-hit shutout in May, and a six-hit shutout in June.
With the Indians trying to stay in contention in the playoff race in September, Masterson was bit by the injury bug. He strained his left oblique muscle during his September 2 start and was gone by the second inning. The injury would shelve him for several starts. He returned for three relief appearances to close out the year as the Indians ran off ten straight wins to head to the AL Wild Card play-in game that they hosted and lost against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Masterson was again the lead pitcher on the Indians staff to start the 2014 season, but was ineffective and later took a trip to the disabled list. A pending free agent, he was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals at the trade deadline, where he continued to struggle as a starter and was used in the final month of the season solely in relief. He returned to Boston for the 2015 season, but was released in August and later had surgery after a poor performance there. He spent the next two seasons pitching in the minors, working in 26 games (six starts) with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2016 before going 11-6 with a 4.13 ERA in 26 more games (all but one a start) with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017.
After hanging up the cleats, he has moved on to his life away from the game, doing missionary work.
Photo: Ron Vesely/Getty Images
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