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Benitez changed man on changed team Maturing young reliever embraces O's new staff


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Somehow, Armando Benitez looks different this spring. Older. His face has changed a little, his command of English is better. His body, soft and thick around the middle by the end of last season, is tapered -- wide shoulders, thin waist.

Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles' Dominican Republic scout who worked with the pitcher in the off-season, doesn't really notice the physical change in Benitez. But he thinks Benitez is more prepared for the major leagues, emotionally.

A common refrain in the Orioles' organization over the past 12 months was that it rushed Benitez, hurt his development by counting on him as heavily as it did last year. Benitez struggled miserably, getting pounded on the mound and reacting poorly when he did.

However, Bernhardt says Benitez benefited from the season-long beating (a 5.66 ERA with 37 hits allowed and 37 walks in 47 2/3 innings). "What happened last year will be a good experience for him," said Bernhardt, his shirt soaked with sweat after throwing 40 minutes of batting practice. "When some kids get to the major leagues, they think [they've got it made]. But really, when you get to the majors, you have to work double."

Benitez, who turned 23 in November, worked with Bernhardt on developing his slider and a sinker this off-season. "Sometimes the hitters, they knew when I was going to throw a fastball last year," Benitez said. "In winter ball, I'd throw my slider on the first pitch, or second or third or fourth pitch. That gives the hitter something to think about."

New Orioles pitching coach Pat Dobson saw Benitez on television last year, loved his arm and didn't like his mechanics. On Friday, in the first Orioles' workout, Dobson, manager Davey Johnson and Bernhardt talked to Benitez about making a couple of changes with his delivery. They moved him to the left side of the mound; they asked him to keep his body and back more upright on his delivery. In this way, they think, Benitez will be able to maintain better control, keeping the ball down in the strike zone.

Benitez threw for the second time yesterday, and Johnson and Dobson stood to the side and nodded in approval. "He was much better today," Johnson said.

Dobson said: "It doesn't make any difference to me what happened last year. But I can tell you this: You don't see too many arms like that."

Benitez goes into spring training as a potential middle reliever, and the Orioles could send him down if they don't see progress. But Johnson's history as a manager is that he likes to bring along one or two young pitchers every year, pitchers who need a little extra attention and refinement.

Bernhardt thinks that will happen with Johnson and Dobson. "I was very pleased with the way they worked with Benitez," he said. "They spent a lot of time with him. He was in my room last night, telling me how excited he was about shifting onto the other side of the pitching rubber. He's happy with them."

At the start of spring training last year, Benitez awed reporters and coaches with his fastball, and Bernhardt said the pitcher was thrilled by the reaction. He would pick up the newspapers and show them to Bernhardt, fascinated with the publicity. Bernhardt watched his reaction and fretted.

"I was worried about him," Bernhardt said. "He wasn't prepared. But now, I don't feel the same way. He's not the same."

Shuffling the numbers, too

When teams change, incumbents often take advantage of the situation to get the uniform numbers they prefer. Ben McDonald wore 19, but now that he's gone, Scott Erickson has taken the number. Dobson is wearing 37, so Rick Krivda has switched to 21.

Top pitching prospect Rocky Coppinger is wearing 72. It won't be too long before he's given a more suitable number, once he joins the Orioles. Farm director Syd Thrift said Friday Coppinger would be best served by starting the year in Triple-A, but Johnson may have different ideas.

Clearly, he and Dobson like the right-hander. "Coppinger is textbook," Johnson said. "I asked him who gave him all those good fundamentals -- his father, his high school coach? He said, 'Nobody.' I said, 'So you're just a good athlete?' He said, 'Yeah, I guess.' "

Dobson said: "He'll be [in the majors]. It's a question of when."

Myers still on hardwood

Johnson hasn't heard anything from Randy Myers. The

reliever is an assistant coach for a women's community college basketball team that has qualified for the playoffs, and Myers won't report until the team completes its season.

"He'll stroll in here with khaki pants and probably a couple of grenades," Johnson said, "and maybe a women's basketball trophy."

Around the horn

The pitchers practiced bunting yesterday, and Johnson said they'll eventually practice some hitting, preparation for interleague exhibitions. Pitcher Mike Mussina pulled a couple of batting gloves out of his locker. "Just getting ready for interleague play," he said, smiling. "I hit .400 in high school -- like everybody else did.". . . . GM Pat Gillick thinks the arbitration hearing with Arthur Rhodes, scheduled for tomorrow, "probably will be a tough case." . . . If Manny Alexander is going to get playing time, Gillick said, it probably will be at third.

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