Archive for Sunday, May 9, 2004

Benitez enjoying Florida resurgence

Closer returns to top form with Marlins

May 9, 2004

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— Armando Benitez leans back in the chair at his locker, as if trying to distance himself from the question, the memory, the city.

New York? Don't ask. That's last season, 1,300 miles away and receding in the rearview mirror.

"I don't want to say anything about New York," Benitez says, waving his arms to fend off the subject.

Ask instead about this season with the Florida Marlins, the 10-for-10 start in save chances, the 0.48 ERA through 17 games. Ask about spending the first month in first place.

Ask about Miami.

"Everybody treats you nice," he says. "It's real different."

Benitez was a closer in need of a fresh start. Last year, Mets fans all but drove him out of Queens midway through his fifth season with the team. His control went first, then his confidence, and he endured taunts and catcalls even in the bullpen.

Give Benitez a few minutes of conversation to warm up, and he's willing to discuss New York after all. He remembers the heckling reached a crescendo in June, when he walked four Yankees in the ninth inning of a game the Mets lost.

"You want to complain about me for one game?" he says. "What about the games I saved? How about 2001 -- only three blown saves all year? How about in 2002 -- only four blown saves?

"You want to get away and not think about, 'What'd I do wrong?' I can't be perfect. The last five years I had 160 saves. That's not bad."

In fact, since the beginning of 2000, only Mariano Rivera and Troy Percival have more saves than Benitez. But by last July, it was clear he had worn out his welcome with the Mets.

They dealt him to the Yankees on July 16, and three weeks later he escaped New York altogether in a trade to Seattle. He finished 2003 with a 2.96 ERA, but had a career-high eight blown saves in 29 chances and was demoted from the role of closer the second half of the season.

At age 31, the burly Dominican began looking for a new team -- his fourth in less than a year. Florida came calling, and Benitez signed a one-year deal for $3.5 million, half his 2003 salary.

The World Series champions wanted to restock a bullpen that lost Ugueth Urbina and Braden Looper. General manager Larry Beinfest says he saw little risk investing in Benitez.

"We thought this environment, in this market on this team, would be a favorable situation for him," Beinfest says. "He has the presence out there. He has the track record. You talk about closers and their aura. You just kind of know they're coming in to slam the door, and Armando has brought that feeling here."

The 230-pound Benitez still throws in the mid-90s. But does he still have the thick skin and short memory the job of closer requires?

New Yorkers might say no. Benitez says yes.

"It comes with experience," he says. "The superstar closers -- Lee Smith, John Franco, Jesse Orosco -- they taught me well. They said, 'Hey you make a mistake, it's over. You don't have to think about it. Think about the 10 games in a row you got.'"

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