Closer call: Benitez gives O's 1-2 punch

April 06, 1997|By John Eisenberg

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Armando Benitez pitched the ninth inning of the Orioles' one-run victory over the Texas Rangers on Friday night, collecting a save while Randy Myers warmed up in the bullpen.

Yesterday, all parties vigorously denied that the Orioles had a brewing closer controversy.

"Randy is my closer," manager Davey Johnson said.

"Everyone knows it's Randy's job," Benitez said.

"It's a non-issue," Myers said.

OK, we get the message.

Myers was back in as the closer last night, recording the last two outs in a 9-7 victory for his third save of the season.

But Johnson also said yesterday that he is going to use Benitez "at times" to close games, when Benitez is pitching as sharply as he was Friday night.

"I want him to get enough experience so he can be successful [as a future closer]," Johnson said.

The future is a concern because Myers' contract expires after this season, but Benitez finally is developing into a promising alternative.

This year? No. Having made only 67 major-league appearances, Benitez, 24, needs more seasoning to withstand the withering pressure of a full-time closer's load.

Remember, the Orioles threw such a load at Gregg Olson starting as a rookie in 1989, and Olson's arm broke down within five years.

This is the right way to break in Benitez, with most of the pressure on a veteran such as Myers, who ranks ninth on the all-time saves list.

As much as it might make sense for the Orioles to trade Myers for a prospect later this season now that Benitez is developing, the Orioles would be foolish to break up what could be a dominating 1-2 ninth-inning punch.

The bullpen might be the club's most important asset, and Myers and Benitez have the potential to do what Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland did for the Yankees a year ago: close off the eighth and ninth innings.

Myers looked terrific in saving the club's first two wins; assistant general manager Kevin Malone said on Opening Day that Myers "pitched better than at any time last year." He was shakier last night, allowing three batters to reach base before closing out the Rangers with the bases loaded.

And Benitez? Well, a year after the Orioles seemed ready to give up on him -- again -- he is making significant strides forward.

After striking out the side to record a save Friday night, Benitez passed the ball around the clubhouse for his teammates to autograph.

"I think it was an important night for him, kind of a little breakthrough," Johnson said.

It was here, in Texas, that Benitez got in trouble a year ago; he injured his elbow while overthrowing his pitches in the infamous 26-7 loss, and wound up on the disabled list. He later angered club officials with a lax attitude about his conditioning.

Having already tried to deal him for Bobby Bonilla in 1995 -- the Mets insisted on getting Alex Ochoa -- the Orioles seemed increasingly skeptical about Benitez's value down the line. As hard as he threw, he was immature and undependable.

But he pitched well enough after coming off the disabled list last season that Johnson used him instead of Myers in several critical situations late in the season and in the playoffs. And then he continued to show improvement this spring.

"I didn't have him much last year," Johnson said, "and late in the season he was real good [at times] and not so good [at times]. But he's shown me some real improvement this spring. He isn't over-throwing his slider or split-finger [fastball] anymore. He's still learning to be a setup man or closer. But he's going to get plenty of work."

When will he pitch the ninth instead of Myers?

"I'm going to ride him when he's throwing like he was Friday," Johnson said. "And certain teams are tough on lefties [such as Myers], like this [Texas] team. There are going to be times when the pieces fit."

Myers could cause trouble if he were so disposed; he needs saves to lobby for a new contract after this season, and Benitez's emergence isn't going to help his total.

But Myers just shrugged yesterday when asked about Johnson's vTC intention of using Benitez at times. It's still his job, after all.

"I prepare myself to pitch every day," he said. "I will pitch when Davey wants me to pitch. That's all there is to it."

In fact, Myers congratulated Benitez after Friday's game, a gesture Benitez appreciated.

"He wasn't mad or anything," Benitez said. "He said to me, 'Good job, I'm happy you got a save. One day you're going to be a closer.' It made me very happy. I really felt like part of the team, to get a save in a game like that."

Johnson insisted that Benitez's emergence and the strength of the rest of the bullpen will help Myers, who will no longer have to work in non-save situations.

"I think Randy could end up with more saves with Armando helping him," Johnson said.

That's debatable, but it doesn't really matter.

What matters is that the Orioles now have an enviable one-two punch for the ninth inning.

"It's a pretty good situation," Johnson said. "There's a lot to like about it."

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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