Ex-Oriole Bennett finds relief with Phillies

Sidelight

In 9th year of pro career, seasoned minor-leaguer gets shot to pitch in majors

June 06, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Joel Bennett returned to Baltimore this weekend with his 88-mph fastball, his big-breaking curve and a carefully manicured reputation as an organizational pitcher.

Nine years into a pro career built more on grit than glitz, Bennett still hears the siren call of big-league baseball. Only now, it's in the precarious role of a long reliever with the Philadelphia Phillies.

This role arrived on the heels of three unrewarding years in the Orioles' farm system, and after five problematic years in the Boston Red Sox organization. The grand total of major-league experience culled from those two opportunities: two relief appearances, two innings, both with the Orioles last season.

This, obviously, is a man who knows his way around baseball's bush leagues.

"I'm 29 years old," Bennett said last night. "I've been in the game long enough to know how it works. My faith is what's gotten me through all this."

His fastball hasn't been much help, though. Clocked between 85 and 88 mph, it is the most damning piece of evidence on his resume. The scouting report on Bennett says he usually pitches well and has a good curveball, but lacks a fastball that would qualify him as a true prospect.

That and, of course, his age.

"Few clubs are going to take on a 29-year-old guy who throws 86, 87 without prior, favorable experience [in the majors]," said Galen Cisco, the Phillies' pitching coach.

The Phillies were willing because, like most big-league teams, they aren't overloaded with good pitching. Remarkably, Bennett became available a year ago after the most promising start of his career.

He went 10-0 at Rochester to start the 1998 season, was the Orioles' organizational Pitcher of the Month for June, and won the International League All-Star Game in Norfolk, Va.

But before he was promoted to the Orioles on July 13, he got a true reading of where he stood in the organization.

"They called up five [pitchers] before me, one out of Double-A," Bennett said. "And Pat Gillick, the general manager at the time, said he had seen the best Rochester has to offer. That was before I got called up."

What followed was hardly a surprise. Roberto Alomar got hurt and the Orioles needed to bring up an infielder (P. J. Forbes). Bennett was the odd man out. When he cleared waivers, he opted to become a free agent rather than accept an assignment to Rochester.

He does not look back in anger, though.

"I'm not mad at anybody," Bennett said. "I know how baseball works. Ray Miller and [then pitching coach] Mike Flanagan were very good to me. They said they wanted to get me some innings."

The innings never came, and on July 25, Bennett signed with the Phillies. He made seven starts at Triple-A Scranton, then re-signed with the club in November, convinced it was his best chance to make the majors.

He went 4-1 at Scranton this season with a 3.09 earned run average and 41 strikeouts in 35 innings. On May 5, looking for a fifth starter, the Phillies called him up. In his first start, he beat the Colorado Rockies. After two more starts, he was sent to the bullpen.

Cisco said Bennett's control -- and a high pitch count -- became issues in those starts.

"I liked what I saw of him in spring training," Cisco said. "He's got an idea of how to pitch. [But] he doesn't have a real good out pitch where he can put guys away.

"He's a good guy. He works hard, does everything you ask. And he loves to take the ball."

In Philadelphia, he may finally get the chance.

Pub Date: 6/06/99

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