Benitez heat warms N.Y.

Mets: Not only has reliever Armando Benitez grown as a pitcher, but the former Oriole also has developed into a team leader.

July 18, 1999|By Mike Vaccaro | Mike Vaccaro,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- He seems thrilled by the challenge, by the mystery of the talent in the cannon disguised as his right arm. As the days pass, as his role on the New York Mets becomes more important and more permanent, it has become possible to witness Armando Benitez grow as a pitcher, game to game.

Sometimes inning to inning. Sometimes pitch to pitch.

"What you're watching," Mets manager Bobby Valentine says, "is the creation of a bona fide major-league pitcher. It's something to see."

The Orioles, who traded Benitez last off-season after he struggled as their closer in 1998, may get to see how far he has come starting tonight, when they open a three-game series with the Mets at Camden Yards.

It didn't take long for Mets fans to fall in love with Benitez's arm, his swagger, his willingness to challenge fastball hitters with one of the finest fastballs in the game, popping the gun at 97, 98, 99 mph most nights. He is an arm-waving, tongue-wagging sensation.

He is the Mets' closer, for now and for the foreseeable future, now that John Franco has been exiled to the disabled list with an injured finger on his pitching hand. The move was greeted warmly by Mets fans, many of whom had grown tired of Franco's chronic late-game adventures and his pedestrian fastball.

"Fans like it when their closer throws gas," Mets general manager Steve Phillips says. "And one thing about Armando: He definitely throws gas."

But a year ago, it was difficult to find a more despised figure in all of baseball in New York than Benitez, who was branded Public Enemy No. 1 in every borough last May when, pitching for the Orioles, he planted a fastball between the "2" and the "4" of Tino Martinez's back at Yankee Stadium.

Bad enough that the pitch smelled of retaliation, coming on the heels of a Bernie Williams home run that had given the Yankees a late-inning lead. Worse was Benitez's behavior after zinging Martinez, when he all but dared the entire Yankees bench to come out and do something about it. Which they did.

Benitez says he wasn't aiming for Martinez that ill-fated night, and admits guilt only for helping to ignite the near-riot that followed. But the same fire that Benitez displayed in the game is on full display even now. With every pitch, he seems intent on making like a cartoon and burning a hole clear through the catcher's mitt.

"He's a nice guy when he's not on the mound," says Mets pitching coach Dave Wallace. "When he's out there, he's a different person. It's a different mind-set when you're a closer."

But Wallace has been more impressed with the way Benitez has developed as a thinking pitcher. No longer is he content to let his success depend solely on his talent. Now, Benitez wants to plot his way through innings, not just plow through them.

"He knows a lot more about pitching than he lets on," Wallace says.

"He has been more vocal about how to pitch to batters in team meetings. He knows when to come in on a hitter and when to pitch him outside. He has expressed his opinion more. I think he's becoming more a part of the team, maybe more of a leader."

And who would have believed that, when the Mets helped engineer the three-way trade that made Todd Hundley a Dodger, Charles Johnson an Oriole and Benitez a Met? Mets fans have been cooing for three months about the apparent one-sided nature of that deal to date.

And it's hard to blame them.

True, Benitez had been less than perfect even before he blew his first save opportunity of the second half Thursday. He had been roughed up earlier by the Astros and Brewers, and he surrendered a game-winning homer to Florida's Mark Kotsay two weeks ago.

But he also compiled a 1.39 ERA and struck out 74 in 45 1/3 innings entering the All-Star break, the kind of breathtaking ratio New York hasn't seen since the Yankees' Goose Gossage was in his prime.

"I have a God-given talent to throw the ball," Benitez says. "I don't try to hit anybody, but the hitters know that it's my job to throw inside and try to get them out. I know as the closer that I have to get the job done."

Lately, he has added a flair for the dramatic, too. Two weeks ago, summoned in the bottom of the ninth to protect a 7-6 lead against the Braves, he was brilliant, striking out Bret Boone, Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan on 14 pitches.

And last weekend, in the first game of a Subway Series with the Yankees, he closed out a 5-2 Mets win by striking out Chili Davis with two men on and two out.

But perhaps the most telling moment of that game occurred two batters earlier, when he struck out Martinez after falling behind 3-0.

Benitez had faced Martinez a month earlier, during the first Subway Series, and coaxed Martinez to hit a lazy fly ball. But that was when he was still Franco's setup man.

The second time, he was the closer. And it made all the difference in the world.

"There is a great responsibility, and I feel it," Benitez says. "This is a team that has a lot of important goals this year, and if I mess up, it's going to hurt those goals. I'm aware of that every time I pitch."

He has become a perfect fit in the Mets' clubhouse, a hulking presence and a "good teammate," according to Turk Wendell, who lost his job as the primary right-handed setup man to Benitez. No hard feelings; Wendell has had a good look at that arm. There was little else to say.

"Benitez is really a teddy bear, but people hate to face him," Wendell says. "People don't like him because they don't want to hit against him, not because they think he's a bad person. I'd much rather have him on my side."

Each time hitters see the vapor trail that follows Benitez's best fastballs, they surely feel the same way.

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