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Things Open Up for Closer

Marlins' Benitez Off to Fast Start After Turmoil


By Amy Shipley

Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, April 27, 2004; Page D07


MIAMI -- Things have been going so well for Florida Marlins closer Armando Benitez that when he extended his hand to make a point while sitting in front of his locker at Pro Player Stadium this past weekend, a teammate passing by mistook it for a high-five and slapped it.


A little later, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria spotted Benitez stretching on the stadium grass among a circle of teammates and hurried over. Gripping Benitez's shoulder with his left hand -- which sported one of the Marlins' massive, $46,000 World Series rings -- Loria shook Benitez's right hand for nearly half a minute while whispering into his ear.


The encounter left Benitez smiling, and the smile seems rarely to wane, except when Benitez is on the mound staring down hitters, and that is a different look entirely. All but forced out of New York by impatient Mets fans last season, Benitez has been welcomed by last year's improbable World Series champion Marlins, and he has returned the embrace with nearly impeccable pitching: He remained tied for the major league lead with 10 saves and reduced his ERA to 0.71 after last night's 6-3 win over Colorado.


As the Marlins sit atop the National League East, extending last year's fairy tale finale, Benitez has shored up what appeared to be the team's weakest link: the bullpen. In so doing, he has resembled the pitcher who emerged in 1997 with the Baltimore Orioles and prospered for four seasons with the Mets. Before last year, that is.


"Some people just need a change of scenery; they need somewhere to go to relax," Marlins left fielder Jeff Conine said. "He can do that here. In New York, he was under a microscope every single pitch. Now he's in a situation where he can thrive."


Benitez can often be sighted yukking it up in Florida's bullpen, but his good humor ends when the subject of last year comes up. On the heels of two straight 40-save seasons, Benitez saved just 21 games and blew eight saves in 2003. Even worse, he started the season 0-3 with a 7.24 ERA, alienating the Shea Stadium crowd from the start. Benitez, though, clearly believes his performances weren't nearly as poor as advertised. And he is understandably pleased with his career save record: 208 saves in 228 opportunities.


"The last four or five years, I got how many [save]opportunities?" he said. " . . . What do you want from me more? Who [else] got those numbers the last four or five years? Only 20 blown saves? Come on. Why create like I am a bad person?"


Of course, it's not the 20 blown saves that distressed the New York faithful, it was the fact that nearly half of them came in the first four months of last season, a year in which Benitez was traded twice, first to the New York Yankees on July 16, then to the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 6. The summer was so discombobulating that Benitez preferred to forget it rather than dissect it; when he retired to his 1,000-acre ranch in Quisesquea, Dominican Republic, in the offseason, he turned his thoughts to his 100 roaming cows and 50 horses.


Baseball, he said, he put out of his mind, other than to sign a one-year deal with the Marlins in December for $3.5 million, half of what he made last year. Nobody else wanted him. It is ironic that Braden Looper, the inconsistent closer who irritated Marlins fans until he lost his job to Ugueth Urbina, signed last winter with the Mets. Marlins Manager Jack McKeon said he never doubted Benitez could help the Marlins given his 98 mph fastball, diving forkball and ninth-inning experience.


"He had 21 saves last year and he blew a few -- so what?" McKeon said in the dugout before a weekend loss to the second-place Atlanta Braves. "I was pretty confident he would be the intimidating guy he used to be, and so far he has lived up to that billing."


Added McKeon, in a tone of utter nonchalance, "He'll blow one every once in a while."


It's that attitude, Marlins players say, that helped a team of financial lightweights and underestimated players succeed last year. Conine came from Baltimore and promptly became a defensive star while inflating his shrunken batting average. Urbina arrived from Texas and Chad Fox signed as a free agent and both lifted the Marlins' bullpen.


Benitez's "experience is what everybody who comes here experiences," Fox said. "It's a lot of fun. There's not a lot of pressure from the media. The way Jack [McKeon] approaches every day is have fun."


Benitez credited Marlins pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal with helping him tweak his mechanics during spring training. Conine said Benitez has always had an unconventional delivery that makes it difficult to tell whether the ball is heading for the back of the plate or the back of your head. This year Benitez has been changing speeds more.


And he is confident. Rosenthal said he liked the fact that when he came to the mound with two outs in the ninth inning of the Marlins' opener against the Montreal Expos, Benitez vowed to attack cleanup hitter Orlando Cabrera with his "best stuff" despite having given up a home run and a double to the previous two batters on the previous two pitches.


Benitez proceeded to whip a fastball to the plate that Cabrera popped up in foul territory for the game's final out.


Last year "is over," Benitez said. "It's past. It's a new year, a new team, new possibilities, a new career. I'm going to have some fun, try to be successful in my new job."

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