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Benitez relief: Closer starts his 'new life'


By Juan C. Rodriguez

Staff Writer

Posted February 24 2004


JUPITER ? He'd trot in from the Shea Stadium bullpen last season, and the hometown fans would make him feel like a visitor. Boos cascaded from the farthest rows of the upper deck as Armando Benitez threw his warm-up pitches.


Shea wasn't always his personal lion's den. In the three previous seasons, Benitez coming in for the ninth sent Mets fans into a frenzy as they savored the all-but-certain victory.


How does that Don Henley song go? In a New York minute everything can change.


Taking part in his first official Marlins workout with fellow pitchers and catchers on Monday, Benitez offered three reasons he anticipates better results.


"New career. New life. New team."


Benitez had established himself among the game's top-tier closers. He saved 41 games in 2000, helping the Mets win the National League pennant. The following season he logged a career-best 43 saves. Though he saved 10 fewer games in 2002, Benitez's ERA dropped from 3.77 to 2.27.


"I didn't like to see him come in there," Marlins manager Jack McKeon said. "I knew eight [out of]10 times he's going to be tough. You have that one bad outing, but all good relievers have a bad outing. You knew your hands were full. You were just hoping when we faced him he wasn't on."


The switch seemed mostly in the off position last year. He opened the campaign blowing four of his first nine save opportunities, drawing the ire of Mets fans. Two of those blown saves were against the Marlins, the second of which left Benitez with a 0-3 record and 6.97 ERA by April 19.


Though he converted 12 straight save chances before blowing another, he no longer inspired the same confidence. Benitez walked 18 in his first 311/3 innings. In 2002 he issued 25 free passes the whole season (671/3 innings).


Benitez's tenure with the Mets, which began in 1999, ended in his blowing three of seven save chances from June 22 to July 13. The Yankees acquired him on July 16 and soon after shipped him to Seattle.


"He's got great stuff," pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal said. "He's coming in fresh. ... Being from New York, I know what they can do there with the papers and what they write. ... Coming to South Florida, you say it's a small market, but we have a lot of pressure here to repeat. He's got to step up there and do it, go out and have fun."


Added center fielder Juan Pierre: "He's definitely a guy not to feel comfortable with when he's in there, so hopefully he regains his form from about two years ago and helps us out."


That's what the Marlins were hoping when they signed Benitez to a one-year, $3.5 million free-agent deal.


Despite seven blown saves, Benitez could take solace in that he logged an ERA under 3.00 (2.96) for the fifth time in seven years. His strikeouts per nine innings did drop to 9.3. It had been 10.6 or higher each of the previous six seasons.


"This is like a gift," Benitez called the opportunity to pitch for the Marlins. "God gave it to me, to be on a real nice team, together with everybody [as] one. I watched these guys in the World Series. It was unbelievable."


The 6-4, 229-pound Benitez had attracted interest from the Red Sox, Cubs, Giants and Devil Rays.


He felt the Marlins offered the most ideal conditions to re-establish himself as a premier closer.


Asked how hungry he was, Benitez said: "Real hungry. You don't want to know. I think I'm more excited than anybody.


"It's not because I want to prove something. Everybody knows what I can do. ... I don't think I'll pitch like I did last year."



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If Benitez can come back and pitch how he did in 2002, then the Loss of Urbina wont hurt. Benitez is a very dominant pitcher when he can throw strikes, he needs to show us in Spring training that he can close out games for us.


We cant afford another looper throwing hard down the middle, either getting ripped or not throwing strikes.

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I never liked Benitez. I always thought he was overrated. But I have come to suspect that maybe it was the environment. The NY Mets are kind of a cancerous team in my mind, a poser, if you will. They act like a legitmate baseball power, but are basically a house of cards. It seems their fans and their baseball 'minds' are highly overrated. I think that perhaps Benitez was in a posionous environment and couldnt retain any confidence. Cut him loose, without second guessing and questioning his every pitch and maybe, just maybe, he will be dominating. I have kind of come around on this guy and I am very confident he will do the job. He is a clear upgrade over Urbina and Looper. And I liked Urbina.

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I understand he had 7 blown saves last year (Looper and Urbina each had 6), but he did have an ERA under 3, an opponents BA around .210, more strikeouts than walks, and about a 2-1 strikeout-walk ratio. I hardly think he had the terrible season people think he did last year, especially considering he had to deal with being traded twice.

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The most compelling comment was...


"This is like a gift," Benitez called the opportunity to pitch for the Marlins. "God gave it to me, to be on a real nice team, together with everybody [as] one. I watched these guys in the World Series. It was unbelievable."


After all the talk from guys about wanting to get out of here, here's a guy who's thankful he joined the team.


Good luck Armando !

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