MINNEAPOLIS -- The moment passed devoid of fanfare. Without proclaiming it, the Orioles have removed the safety net from beneath Armando Benitez.
Though manager Ray Miller refuses to declare Benitez his "closer" -- Miller refuses to convey the title on any pitcher who hasn't saved 30 games in a season -- how he has handled his bullpen in recent days suggests that the Orioles no longer will hold back Jesse Orosco, Alan Mills or Arthur Rhodes to clean up any potential mess.
"We can't keep Jesse back anymore," pitching coach Mike Flanagan said before last night's game. "We don't have that luxury anymore. It's Armando's to handle."
Miller tacitly said as much May 5 when he permitted Benitez to pitch the entire ninth inning against Cleveland after he loaded the bases with none out in a 5-4 game. Benitez forced home the tying run with a walk, nearly escaped by getting two outs, then lost on Omar Vizquel's two-out single. Rhodes was available.
"We may still keep somebody back because I don't want him out there throwing a ton of pitches," said Miller. "I like having him available if I need him."
Steadfastly refusing to bestow the closer title, Miller acknowledged that allowing Benitez to take last Wednesday's hit represented a statement.
"This situation is easier," said Benitez. "Last year was very difficult. I would come in with none out and the bases loaded. I'd get three outs, then Randy Myers would come in for the save. This year they let me come in to start the inning and close. It's up to me."
Benitez has converted all six of his save opportunities though he has twice been rescued by Orosco. Miller has emphasized the need for him to enter a game focused rather than waiting for a situation to build. In Benitez's team-high 19 appearances, he has surrendered home runs three times to the first batter faced and struck out seven first batters.
"It's more of a mental adjustment than anything," said Flanagan. "Last year, every time Armando came in there seemed to be a crisis. This year, he's being given an entire inning. It's his job to save a lead that eight hard-played innings have created. That creates its own pressure."
Once criticized as a high-maintenance talent who couldn't handle occasional failure, Benitez has appeared more resilient this season. Flanagan watched his response to the meltdown in Cleveland and was pleased.
"He's dealing with things better. He knows he has to be ready for the next day and isn't as prone to deal in the past," Flanagan said.
Until recently Benitez struggled with English as well as reading instructions from the bench. Now a mound visit isn't necessary from either Miller or Flanagan to help the right-hander make a mechanical adjustment.
"I'm comfortable with this," said Benitez, whose last save came May 1. "It's no big deal. I just need to concentrate the same all the time. I can't wait until I get in trouble."
Reboulet's number 'retired'
When former Minnesota Twins infielder Jeff Reboulet arrived at the Metrodome on Monday, he noticed an oversight. Hanging from the outfield upper deck are giant likenesses of Harmon Killebrew (3), Rod Carew (29), Tony Oliva (6), Kent Hrbek (14), Kirby Puckett (34) and Jackie Robinson (42).
Reboulet, who crushed nine home runs and 100 RBIs in five seasons with Minnesota, asked ex-Twins manager Miller about the whereabouts of his likeness and number.
Yesterday the correction had been made. Just inside the right-field foul pole, taped to the upper-deck facade, was a 8 1/2 -by-11 copy of Reboulet's dour mug from his Twins days. From home plate the photocopy looked stamp-sized. It did nothing to diminish Reboulet's thrill.
"I've made it! I've made it!" yelled Reboulet while thrusting his arms skyward during pre-game stretching. "I knew it!"
Rodriguez sent down
The Orioles created roster space for Scott Kamieniecki's return from the disabled list by optioning right-hander Nerio Rodriguez to Triple-A Rochester. The move was expected, leaving Miller with 11 pitchers and three catchers. The Orioles retain only three players with options remaining: catcher Charlie Greene, middle reliever Sidney Ponson and outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, who is in the first year of a three-year, $7.1 million contract.
Rodriguez returned to Baltimore last night with the team and will not report until Saturday, the day before he makes his next start in Norfolk, Va.
Rodriguez (0-1) made only two appearances, including one start, after being promoted April 26. He allowed eight hits and five earned runs in five innings and has yet to steady himself since leaving spring training. Rodriguez was 0-3 with a 6.14 ERA at Rochester.
Around the horn
Nursing a sore elbow, second baseman Roberto Alomar returned to the fifth spot in Miller's batting order after hitting leadoff Monday. Miller wants to give Alomar more run-producing opportunities yet the switch-hitter lags with 11 RBIs in 144 at-bats after going 0-for-4 last night. Alomar hit his first left-handed home run of the season Monday night but carried a slugging percentage of only .323 from the left side. Jeffrey Hammonds went 3-for-5 and was 9-for-17 on the seven-game road trip. Chris Hoiles has played 115 consecutive errorless games. Marty Cordova was 6-for-41 in the 10 games before going on the disabled list. Last night the Twins left fielder went 2-for-4 with a double, an RBI and his first stolen base. There are 5,200 tickets remaining for tonight and 5,300 for tomorrow.
Pub Date: 5/13/98