Benitez on fast track out?


FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Less than a week to Opening Day for the Orioles and new manager Phil Regan is feeling very good about life.

His rotation appears very strong. The Orioles' defense has been phenomenal. He likes the way his bench is coming together, with veterans Matt Nokes and Kevin Bass. Collectively, the Orioles are hitting .320, with 12 homers and 10 stolen bases in their first eight games. Regan's got teen-age shortstops hitting inside-the-park grand slams.

Really, everything is falling into place -- except rookie reliever Armando Benitez, who has fallen apart.

You remember Benitez. Big guy with a fastball that travels about 95 mph. He was going to be the Orioles' closer until veteran Doug Jones signed two weeks ago; even then, Regan made it clear that by the end of the year, Benitez could ascend from his role as setup man and replace Jones.

All that was assuming that Benitez, who struck out 14 in 10 fantastic innings for the Orioles last year, would continue to throw strikes and get people out. In four appearances this spring, he's done neither.

Benitez's spring ERA soared to 22.09 yesterday, when he allowed two hits and two walks and three runs in one inning against the Red Sox. All told, Benitez has been lashed for 10 hits and four walks in 3 2/3 innings, with six strikeouts.

From closer to setup man to long reliever to . . . the minors?

Regan would not rule out the possibility that Benitez will begin the year at Triple-A Rochester, or as middle reliever in the O's bullpen. "I'd say this," Regan said. "He doesn't have a lock on that role [with the team]."

Actually, Regan was encouraged by pieces of Benitez's outing yesterday. In his prior spring appearances, Benitez has gotten into trouble and then, frustrated, has started throwing nothing but fastballs, trying to fire each successive pitch harder and harder.

This you cannot do. Not in the big leagues. Regan fretted over Benitez's poise.

Against the Red Sox, however, Benitez threw more breaking pitches. Not always with success, Regan acknowledged, but at least he showed he was thinking about what he was doing, rather than just reacting. (Or maybe he was just reacting: One of the reasons that Benitez threw more breaking pitches is that Regan and pitching coach Mike Flanagan told catcher Greg Zaun to call for more sliders.)

Regan is confident that Benitez's problems are correctable, all based in flawed mechanics. As Flanagan explained, Benitez is, because of a slight problem in his delivery, telegraphing his fastball. Hitters can recognize almost the instant that Benitez draws his arm back to throw whether he is going to unload a fastball or a breaking pitch.

When it's a fastball, they tee off. When it's a breaking pitch, they lay off, because neither his slider nor his curveball is quite refined.

Regan thinks the mechanical flaw also is preventing Benitez from throwing as hard as he's capable. "I don't see the 96-mph fastball I saw in the Dominican," Regan said.

"There's no doubt that we want him to be in that role [of setup man] to start the year. But the way he's pitching right now, we can't keep him in that role, unless he improves his next two times out."

Flanagan offers another theory: Benitez has come into camp aware of the expectations for him, realizing the tremendous chance he is being given, and has simply tried too hard.

"He's dropping his arm when he throws," Flanagan said, "and he's trying way too hard. If he's throwing 95 [mph], he wants to throw 100.

"He wants to be a major contributor on the club, and we want him to be a major contributor. . . . Really, the adjustment he needs to make is not that major."

Regan said: "We're going to see him two more times. . . . The only question we have now is Benitez, and whether we'll keep him in the setup role."


Exhibition opponent: Toronto Blue Jays

Site: Dunedin, Fla.

Time: 1:05 p.m.


Starters: Orioles' Kevin Brown vs. Blue Jays' pitcher to be named.


The good and the bad from the Orioles' 15-5 exhibition victory over the Red Sox yesterday:


* The Orioles pounded 24 hits, including six from their two catchers, Matt Nokes (3) and Greg Zaun (3). Between those two, the No. 5 spot in the Orioles' lineup went 6-for-6, with three runs scored.

* Eddie Martinez, a 17-year-old shortstop who will be playing Single-A rookie ball in the Orioles' organization this year, hit an inside-the-park grand slam, running through a stop sign at third and sliding across home plate headfirst.

* Left fielder Brady Anderson and right fielder Jeffrey Hammonds had three hits apiece. Anderson led off the game with an opposite-field homer; two batters later, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro also homered, in almost the same spot.

* Andy Van Slyke, expected to sign a one-year, $700,000 contract today, hit a two-run single.


* Rookie reliever Armando Benitez struggled yet again, allowing three runs on two hits and two walks in one inning, his spring ERA climbing to 22.09.

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