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Sunday, October 9, 2011
Yuniesky Betancourt, improbable hero

By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

MILWAUKEE -- Some 30 minutes after the Milwaukee Brewers beat the St. Louis Cardinals 9-6 in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday, the unthinkable happened.

Yuniesky Betancourt entered the postgame media interview room.

In a chair typically reserved for the Brauns, Fielders and Pujolses of the world, a player widely considered one of the worst in baseball answered questions in a room full of curious reporters. Speaking through an interpreter, he talked about his critical role in helping the Brewers to their Game 1 victory and the spark he has provided Milwaukee thus far in the young postseason.

It was mind-boggling, the equivalent of a comptroller from Sandusky, Ohio, holding court in the East Room of the White House. But this is postseason baseball. This is when previously unheralded players like Cody Ross, Scott Brosius and Billy Hatcher transform into heroes. Betancourt, hitting 7-for-22 (.318) with two doubles, a triple and a home run in six postseason games, is just the latest on the list.

He's also the most unlikely.

In his seven major league seasons, there aren't many everyday players who have been criticized more. Baseball bloggers write about Betancourt with the ferocity of a tiger attacking a slab of red meat. Betancourt is regularly ranked as one of the worst everyday players in the game and the numbers support it. Just this year, his .271 on-base percentage was the second worst in the National League for players with more than 500 at-bats. He walked 16 times all season. And hit into just as many double plays.

He's overaggressive at the plate. Below average in the field. And drives most managers crazy. Noted baseball writer Joe Posnanski once wrote an entire blog about searching for a positive thing about having Betancourt in a team's lineup. The answer? Durability.

Throughout this postseason, the ongoing gag in the press box has been if Betancourt makes only one out in an at-bat, it's considered a success for the Brewers.

"Yuni is a little inconsistent sometimes with his ABs," Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said. "Sometimes you get frustrated with him."

Like in his first at-bat on Sunday. After Jaime Garcia hit Prince Fielder, threw a four-pitch walk to Rickie Weeks and then began Betancourt's at-bat with a ball, St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan visited the mound for a chat. Then Betancourt swung at the next five pitches -- all but one of which were outside the strike zone -- before striking out. Typical.

"He's an aggressive hitter, obviously," Jerry Hairston Jr. said. "That's his style."

Yuniesky Betancourt
Yuniesky Betancourt busts a move with Rickie Weeks to celebrate his unlikely homer.

So you can imagine the shock two innings later when Betancourt stepped to the plate in the fifth inning with Weeks on first and the Brewers leading 6-4 and began fouling off pitches. You can imagine the jaws that dropped as he poked St. Louis reliever Octavio Dotel's cutter and then his slider out of play. One, two, three, four and then five times.

The Brewers had already scored four runs in the inning, thanks to a two-run double by Ryan Braun and a two-run homer by Fielder. Before Betancourt's at-bat, one baseball blogger tweeted, "Yuni Betancourt is up. This should slow the Brewers down a little." But just the opposite happened. With Weeks on first base, Dotel hung a 78 mph slider that Betancourt poked over the left-field wall for -- gasp -- a home run.

"I was trying to do my job," Betancourt said afterward through an interpreter. "I was trying to move the runner and hit the ball the other way. But he hung a slider so I tried to make good contact."

It was one of the most impressive at-bats of the game from one of the most unlikely players.

"That was one of the best at-bats he's had all year," Roenicke said.

Within a few minutes, Yuni was trending on Twitter.

"Where are they hiding the real Yuni?" wrote one fan.

"Yuni? Yuni!" wrote another.

Leading off the seventh, Betancourt had another eye-opening at-bat, fouling off four pitches against Kyle McClellan and working the count full before ripping a double into the left-field corner. Two batters later he'd score the game's final run in a 9-6 Milwaukee win.

Afterward, the 29-year-old who defected from Cuba in 2003 stood in front of his locker, a huge smile draped across his face. Through the interpreter, he said it was "like a dream" to have an impact for his team during his first taste of baseball's postseason. Critics be damned.

"This is like a new start. It feels good," Betancourt said. "I don't worry about the past. I just want to help my team."

When he finished speaking, a Brewers PR rep ushered Betancourt into the interview room across the hall, where reporters waited for more answers. His news conference was sandwiched between those of Fielder and Braun.

When asked again about the criticism he's dealt with over the years and whether or not his performance so far in the postseason provides a sense of redemption, Betancourt smiled.

"I don't really understand English very well," Betancourt said through his translator. "So that being said, I don't really pay attention to what the critics say. Since I don't understand, I don't get mad. I just try to do my thing."

For the time being, it appears to be working. And as shocking as it may seem, the Brewers have a new weapon in their lineup. Even if many want to criticize it for often resembling a dull knife.

"He's huge for us," Hairston said. "We're going to need 25 guys to advance. We're going to need him."

"I wish he could do it all the time," Roenicke said. "I wish everybody could do it all the time. But that's not baseball."

And this is Yuniesky Betancourt.

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn.com.