Benitez opens his bid to close Orioles reliever does 'my job,' holding Mets in 9th inning of 1-0 win

'He's more mature'

Hard thrower working on adding changeup

March 02, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Spring didn't wait long to hand Armando Benitez, closer, an appropriate situation. He squeezed it with gusto.

Appearing for the first time since his ruinous postseason experience of last October, Benitez gave meaning to the Orioles' 1-0 exhibition win over the New York Mets yesterday with a scoreless ninth inning devoid of suspense. Vance Wilson, Shawn Gilbert and Ralph Milliard were his mostly anonymous victims, but the performance represented a promising starting point.

"I wasn't nervous. I just go out and pitch and do my job," Benitez said following a post-game run in the outfield. "Everything is going good."

The Orioles handed Benitez a lead in the top of the ninth when outfielder Jesus Tavarez sent a bad-hop single through shortstop to score shortstop Mitch Simons. The Orioles managed only five singles off six Mets pitchers but were able to piece together the winning rally against closer John Franco.

Once the Orioles were frustrated by Benitez's immaturity and quick temper. Yesterday they watched a better conditioned, more mature pitcher give an overpowering performance before putting himself through a taxing series of sprints.

"The first time I try to find my velocity. The second time I concentrate on location," said Benitez, whose only blemish was a two-out single to former Orioles farmhand Brent Bowers. "I did what I needed to do today."

Orioles manager Ray Miller confined his enthusiasm. He knows there will be more telling tests. "I think the first outing of spring training everybody sets the tone a little bit Armando did good," he said. "He looked like he handled himself well. It's not like he hasn't done anything. Heck, he saved nine out of 10 last year. He came in and got guys out with the bases loaded and two outs. This was a good outing for him."

For now, the Orioles remain reserved with their praise. Benitez, a young 25, has disappointed them before with a lack of regard for fitness and work habits. However, he has begun to shed the tag by arriving at camp committed to an exercise regimen, better eating habits and expanding his pitching repertoire to include a changeup. Forced to confront failure during last year's American League Championship Series, he has become more receptive to suggestions.

"He's more mature this year and he's twice as mature as he was two years ago," said pitching coach Mike Flanagan, charged with adding an off-speed pitch to a high-velocity assortment of fastball, slider and split-fingered pitch. "He's open to things. Sometimes, as a guy with a 98-mph fastball, that's tough."

Benitez peaked at 96 mph in his one-inning stint. But just as noticeable was the absence of histrionics that sometimes tainted his remarkable performance last season: nine saves in 10 chances, 2.45 ERA, 106 strikeouts in 73 1/3 innings.

He is attempting to duplicate the addition that helped his predecessor as closer, Randy Myers, to a monster 1997 season. Myers not only became comfortable working both sides of the plate for then-pitching coach Miller, he also embraced the power of changing speeds.

"Certainly if you have four pitches it's better than three," said Flanagan. "It allows you to go with what's working best. If you're a two-pitch pitcher and something's not right, all of a sudden you're a one-pitch pitcher. That's not good."

As much the big man's protector as his manager, Miller has deliberately downplayed Benitez's inheritance of the closer's role by talking up the potential ninth-inning contributions of left-handers Arthur Rhodes, Norm Charlton and even Jesse Orosco, whose last save came in 1995.

It has not stopped Benitez, likely the team's youngest player come Opening Day, from envisioning this as the opportunity he has long awaited. He has become more comfortable with his second language and his most recent manager.

"I want to improve. One way to improve is to become comfortable with the changeup. It's exciting," he said.

Benitez has adopted a "circle change" grip in which he holds the ball with the outside three fingers of his massive right hand. The overhand motion causes the pitch to run in against right-handed hitters compared to the rest of his assortment, which runs away or down.

Summed up Flanagan, who has experienced no resistance from the hulking talent often considered as temperamental as he is gifted: "It's something else for a hitter to think about. Armando has made a commitment to learning the pitch.

"You start out throwing it on the side, then you throw it between innings while warming up and then you bring it into the game. I think he's at that second stage right now. But it's there."

Orioles today

Opponent: Montreal Expos

Site: Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Time: 1: 05 p.m.

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Expos' Mark Valdes vs. Orioles' Jimmy Key

Pub Date: 3/02/98

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