Benitez's 90-mph fastball is clear in any language


Johnny Oates is not sure that his rookie pitcher, Armando Benitez, understands English.

"No matter what you ask him," Oates said, "it's the same answer."

On the field, it's much the same thing. Benitez always has one answer: a 90-mph fastball.

At least that's how he responded to Albert Belle, who struck out after the first four pitches of Benitez's major-league career.

The rookie right-hander from the Dominican Republic was called up Wednesday from the Double-A Bowie Baysox. The following day, with the Orioles trailing 7-1 in the first game of a doubleheader and runners at first and second, Oates brought in Benitez to face Belle.

"Are you going to take him out every time he has to face Albert Belle?" Oates said. "You find out something quick."

Granted, trailing 7-1 is not exactly a pressure situation, but Oates found out that Benitez just might be the team's closer of the future.

Benitez said facing Belle first made him only a little nervous. "I don't even think he knows what nervous is," bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks said, "Not yet."

Benitez did not get any more timid facing Eddie Murray, who flied out to left to end the inning. He pitched 2 2/3 innings and struck out three in his major-league debut.

To keep it simple, catcher Chris Hoiles called for mostly fastballs.

"We were just trying to get his feet on the ground," Hoiles said. "We didn't want to get too fancy because it was his first time out."

Pitching at the professional level thus far has been easy for Benitez. During his four-year career, he has struck out 12.53 per nine innings.

Benitez was 6-3 with 13 saves at Bowie this season. Last year he was the co-winner of the Palmer Prize, which is given to the organization's best pitching prospect, with a combined record of 8-1 and 18 saves at Albany and Frederick.

But striking out Belle does not mean that Benitez has mastered )) the major-league level. "That was his first test," Hendricks said. "I'm sure that Belle will have his day, too."

Belle might not get the chance if the Orioles send Benitez back to Bowie to make room for another starter.

Benitez temporarily has moved from his apartment in Annapolis to a downtown hotel because he does not own a car. Former Oriole Jose Mesa of the Indians gave him a ride to the hotel Wednesday night and Hendricks, who speaks Spanish, gave him one Thursday.

Relying on the know-how of Latin and other Spanish-speaking players has helped Benitez.

None of them minds. Leo Gomez, who is Puerto Rican, remembers speaking no English when he went to his first instructional league with the Orioles in 1986. A player named Rico Rossy, now an infielder with the Kansas City Royals, helped Gomez, who is returning the favor with Benitez. "I just want to be there for him," Gomez said.

Benitez wants to be there, too.

Ever since he met fellow Dominican Jose Rijo when he was 15, Benitez has wanted to be a star.

"He wants to be somebody," Gomez said, interpreting for Benitez. "He wants to be a superstar and stay in this league a long time."

To stay with the Orioles this season, Benitez will need a couple more great outings like the one he had Thursday.

"Maybe he'll change their minds, if he gets them out of here enough," Hendricks said. "Minds have been changed. Both ways."

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