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Speed thrills: Benitez wows Orioles hitters


SARASOTA, Fla. -- Manny Alexander stood next to the batting cage, watching Armando Benitez warm up.

"Oooooh, Benito," Alexander moaned in a singsong voice, bracing for what was to come.

Ten minutes of hell.

Batting practice with Armando.

"You're sitting there watching BP," advance scout Deacon Jones said, "and all of a sudden, you hear, 'pow!' "

The players, coaches and reporters gathered around the cage heard it over and over again yesterday.

First the whoosh.

Then the pow.

This was supposed to be batting practice, but Benitez's fastballs kept detonating in catcher Matt Nokes' glove.

"I hit one ball hard out of five swings," Brady Anderson boasted. "That was pretty good."

It was a dazzling spring-training moment, the hard-throwing rookie overpowering accomplished major-league hitters.

And Benitez loved it.

"It looked like he was having fun," Jones said. "He was getting cocky. It was like, 'OK, you guys, here I come, I'm not even heated up yet.' "

The consensus was that Benitez was throwing in the mid-90-mph range. Afterward, the Orioles' closer-in-waiting smiled and said he could throw even harder.

He wasn't even scheduled to throw BP yesterday, but, what the heck, he's in game condition after pitching all winter in his native Dominican Republic.

"Some guys like throwing BP, some guys don't," pitching coach Mike Flanagan said.

Benitez likes throwing BP.

Just ask the hitters who faced him -- Alexander, Anderson, Leo Gomez and Jeffrey Hammonds.

"I don't care if it's now or later in the season," Hammonds said. "That's about as hard as it's going to come."

Benitez would signal his pitches -- fastball, changeup or slider -- by flicking his wrist.

The hitters knew what to expect.

And still, they barely had a chance.

At one point, the protective screen on the pitcher's mound blew over.

"That wasn't the wind -- it was his arm speed," Flanagan joked.

Anderson said he had used only one bat the entire spring until breaking it on his first swing against Benitez.

Moments later, Gomez suffered the same fate.

Hitting coach Lee May said, "We got enough bats to finish the round?"

Broken bats, futile swings, frustrated hitters.

Batting practice with Armando.

Nokes brought a new glove out to the practice field yesterday. It was nearly broken in by the time he was through catching Benitez.

Even Benitez's changeup offered no relief.

"That ain't a changeup!" Hammonds screamed. "Get a new name for that."

"He's changing speeds," Nokes explained. "He's throwing harder."

Gomez failed to see the humor -- he got so flustered, he started yelling at Benitez in Spanish.

Translation, Leo?

"Throw slower. You don't have to prove anything. Everyone knows you throw 95."

Alas, Benitez couldn't help himself.

"I can't throw it slower," he said. "I throw it slower, too many walks. I need to throw real hard."

And harder.

Even when Nokes called for a pitchout, Benitez delivered his usual gas.

"A little easier," Nokes said, exasperated.

Benitez said he doesn't mind if even the hitters on his own team think he's a little crazy. But the truth is, he usually knows where his ball is going.

"At least he's got good control," Gomez said. "It's not like facing [Brad] Pennington. The first day, he threw one over Brady's head."

"He's not wild," Rafael Palmeiro said. "I'd like for him to be wild once in a while, just so he can intimidate people. Every now and then, I tell him to throw a pitch to the backstop -- let it go and act like it's natural."

Benitez did nothing of the sort yesterday. He was putting on a show. And he never slowed down.

Late in the round, he threw an especially wicked fastball. Flanagan said with a sigh to a coach, "You shouldn't have told him he was running out of time."

Gomez, for one, couldn't wait for the session to end.

"One more," he said, testily.

He took a final, futile swing.

"Can I go to the cage now?" he asked, eager to face a pitching machine and make contact.

When it was over, Palmeiro walked over to shake Benitez's hand, batting-practice pitcher Sammy Snider took the mound and the crowd scattered.

"I remember guys who threw that hard," said Jones, who played for the Chicago White Sox in 1962, '63 and '66. "I'm thinking, I must have been nuts."

Ten minutes of hell.

Batting practice with Armando.

"My goodness," Jones said. "Wasn't that something?"

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