HOUSTON -- Andy Benes can laugh when he thinks about the time last season he was the third man to his locker. San Diego teammates Bruce Hurst and Craig Lefferts were there waiting after Benes failed to protect a 9-2 lead against Houston.
Their message was simple.
"Basically, a couple of the other pitchers threw him up against a wall," San Diego Padres general manager Joe McIlvaine said. "They said, 'You're better than this.' "
Benes, 24, got the idea. He has been practically untouchable this season, 2-0 with a 0.39 ERA in three starts, entering yesterday's outing at home against Cincinnati. It has been both a carry-over from his strong finish last season and vindication for departed GM Jack McKeon and the scouts who made Benes the first pick in the 1988 draft.
"I feel very confident when I go out there," Benes said. "The biggest thing is I'm in control. I'm throwing the ball in the strike zone."
Life can be simple for a pitcher who stands 6-6, works fast and throws strikes with three pitches, including a fastball in the 90s. It has been that way for Benes over a remarkable stretch of 18 starts -- and counting.
Benes -- not Roger Clemens, Jose Rijo nor John Smoltz -- has quietly become the major leagues' most effective pitcher. Since the 1991 All-Star break, Benes has fulfilled the expectations placed on him when San Diego drafted him ahead of Jim Abbott and Gregg Olson.
Benes, a former University of Evansville quarterback, "is a learner," Padres manager Greg Riddoch said. "A lot of guys with his talent think they know it all. You can't teach them anything. But Andy always wants to learn, and he can take information and put it to use."
Benes made only 21 minor-league starts before joining the Padres on Aug. 9, 1989. He has stayed in the majors since, but it took two years for him to learn how to win.
Benes finished his first pro season 16-8, including a 6-3 record in 10 starts with San Diego. He was a disappointing 10-11 in his first full season in the majors, then started last year 4-10. His career record at that point was 20-24.
"I just let a lot of things bother me that were out of my control," Benes said. "Whether it was a play in the field or a walk, it was really out of my control. I'd let it bother me and lose my focus. Now, I'm focused on what I need to do. That's been the biggest difference."
How much of a difference? He's 13-1 with a 1.52 ERA in his last 18 starts. He has struck out 19 while allowing 17 runners (14 hits, three walks) in 23 1/3 innings this season.
"He's always ahead in the count," McIlvaine said. "He's a power pitcher who doesn't have trouble with walks."
Few pitchers work faster. Benes takes the return throw from the catcher standing about a foot behind the pitching rubber, then immediately steps up, gets a sign and throws his next pitch. Strictly business.
"I used to throw a lot of balls, and I would take a lot of time between pitches," he said. "Now, I get the ball, and I know what I want to do instead of trying to decide what I want to accomplish. I know I just want to throw the ball in the strike zone."
Benes averaged 15.2 pitches per inning last season, a total that allowed him to complete only four of 33 starts. He has cut that average to 11.9 pitches this season. The games he has started have averaged 2 hours, 40 minutes, an especially quick pace considering Houston hung on for 11 innings to beat San Diego, 1-0, in his last start.
He has come a long way since that talk with Hurst and Lefferts. It was the crossroads on his way to success.
"The guy who should get the credit is Andy," Hurst said. "He's the one who responded. There was some tension, some stress. We never had really confronted each other face to face, but things filtered through, and we had a talk. He learned how to win.
"Some guys learn earlier than others. It's hard to visualize
anybody being any better than him."