Slow and steady wins race to get Benitez on fast track

March 05, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

TAMPA, Fla. -- This is the way a future closer should develop. With a manager experienced at handling young pitchers. With a pitching coach who can give him extra attention. With a team that can afford him time to grow.

Like so many others with the Orioles last season, Armando Benitez was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Club officials projected him as the closer by June, when in fact he still belonged in the minor leagues.

Now, with Davey Johnson as manager and Pat Dobson as pitching coach, his development can begin in earnest. Benitez, 23, seems happier this spring, and he should be. The Orioles are putting him in position to succeed.

Benitez earned the save in last night's 4-1 victory over the Yankees, but with Randy Myers the new closer, he can spend the next two years being the Orioles' Julian Tavarez -- or, even more to the point, their Hector Carrasco. Carrasco is the Dominican reliever who made the jump from A ball to the majors with Cincinnati two years ago. Johnson built his confidence by using him carefully, and by the time the strike hit, Carrasco was nearly ready to close.

"With any young pitcher, it's always the same," said Johnson, who managed the New York Mets for seven seasons and Cincinnati for three. "You want to bring him along slowly."

"You want to get him some success. And if you get some success, you don't go overboard. That's basically what I've always done -- Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Carrasco, Benitez -- it's all the same."

The Orioles once were renowned for their patience with young pitchers, but the game changed, and so did their approach. Ben McDonald, Arthur Rhodes, Benitez -- all were rushed to the majors, with disappointing results.

Rocky Coppinger is their latest hot prospect, and it's critical he spend the entire year at Triple-A. Benitez didn't pitch at that level before joining the Orioles. Little wonder he allowed eight homers last season, and twice was demoted.

"It happened too fast," said Carlos Bernhardt, the Dominican scout who signed Benitez, and remains his mentor. "It was too much for him mentally."

Looking back, how could anyone have expected Benitez to prosper? He struggled most of the spring. Manager Phil Regan and pitching coach Mike Flanagan also were rookies. And the expectations were nothing less than staggering.

As if that wasn't enough, his role became even more prominent because of the shortened spring training. Benitez, projected as a setup man, appeared in a league-high 19 games through June 7.

"We didn't have any choice," Flanagan said. "The thing that really hurt us the most was coming out of spring training having [Mike] Mussina and the rest limited to 60-pitch counts the first month.

"We had to use people we were unsure about every day. That won't happen this year. [Johnson] will be able to pick his spots. Last year, there was nobody else."

This year, Myers will close, with two other veterans, Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco, setting up. Regan had to carry both Benitez and Brad Pennington last season, and with Alan Mills never quite sound, his bullpen fell apart.

Benitez liked Flanagan, but Regan lost trust in him, and he in Regan. That won't happen with Johnson -- "When he talks to you, he looks into your eyes," Bernhardt said. Benitez agreed, pointing to his chest, saying Johnson and Dobson have "good hearts."

Indeed, his relationship with Dobson already appears special, and not just because the pitching coach corrected a flaw in his mechanics, helping him throw more over the top.

Dobson takes extra time with Benitez, knowing it tends to make the pitcher feel more secure. Likewise, Bernhardt said, "Benitez doesn't do anything without asking Pat,"

"I mess with him all the time," Dobson said, smiling.

"I knew that he needed a lot of attention. You find out a lot from Carlos, what the kids are like. I try to make sure every day to talk to him."

Last year?

"Regan was a new manager. Flanagan was a new pitching coach," Benitez said. "They had to worry about a lot of people, not just one person. I understood. Last year was very hard."

Bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks said Benitez didn't make it any easier on himself, reporting out of shape, then going through a dead-arm period after the season started.

He also displayed bursts of immaturity.

Remember when he was ejected for drilling Tino Martinez after giving up a grand slam to Edgar Martinez, then cleaned out his locker? Or when he held up the team bus for refusing to wear thrift-shop apparel as part of a team prank?

Bernhardt did.

And in January, he met with Benitez and his mother in the Dominican Republic, and read him the riot act.

"I let him know the Orioles were not going to wait their whole lives for somebody to grow up," Bernhardt said. "It looks like he's grown up a lot."

Catcher Gregg Zaun said Benitez seems "more easygoing, more lighthearted." He's more comfortable in the clubhouse. And he's in better condition than last spring.

"It's easier," Benitez said. "Last year was my first time in the majors. Right now is my second time. I know what happened. I know what to do. I have the experience."

Will he mature enough to be a closer? It's still too early to tell. But at least now the Orioles are taking the proper approach with Armando Benitez. At least now they're giving him a chance.

Pub Date: 3/05/96

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