Sunday, October 15, 2000

Benes sheds playoff monkey

        NEW YORK — Andy Benes took the ball without trepidation. He would pitch without panic. The St. Louis Cardinals showed up at Shea Stadium Saturday afternoon with their whole season at stake, and Benes behaved as if his only burden was a bad knee.

        “People talk about pressure,” he had said Friday afternoon. “Pressure is if you don't know where you're going to sleep at night. This is fun. This is what we get paid to do.”

        Because athletes often say this sort of thing with churning stomachs and gnawed fingernails, it is sometimes possible to question their sincerity. Playoff games are something more than routine and something less than a lark.

        Yet if Andy
Benes was feeling any heat Saturday, he absorbed it like a 6-foot-6 sheet of solar paneling. He pitched eight efficient innings in an 8-2 victory over the New York Mets, allowing six singles, and enabling the Cardinals to cut their deficit to 2-1 in the best-of-seven National League Championsip Series.

        The Mets remain in control, but their grip has loosened. Wherever it was Andy Benes slept Saturday, his dreams should have been sweet.

        “Hell, this gave us a chance in this series,” St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa said. “Personally, for him, he can stand up and be proud. He made a heck of a statement.”

        “He threw really good pitches when he had to,” said Mets manager Bobby Valentine. “The time we had them on the ropes, we couldn't put them away.”

        This was not what the form chart would have forecast. In six previous post-season starts, the 33-year-old Benes had never won a game. In 36 1/3 playoff innings, he had allowed 26 earned runs. Euphemistically, he has “struggled.” Realistically, he has been strafed.
        A different season

        Last year, as an Arizona Diamondback, Benes was completely passed over in Buck Showalter's post-season pitching rotation. Nor did he pitch in the Cardinals' Division Series sweep of the Atlanta Braves.

        Yet if he never gets another out in the major leagues, Andy Benes will always have this Saturday to savor — the day he came through in the clutch.

        “Baseball's humbling,” he said. “You never know what's going to happen when you go out there. I looked at this as a great opportunity, and I was very, very calm and comfortable out on the mound.”

        Friday night, in his hotel room, Benes had his right knee drained of the fluid that has built up because of frayed cartilage. It has become a standard part of his pre-start routine and, perhaps, partially responsible for his success Saturday.

        Unable to push off as firmly on his tender knee, Benes is throwing fewer fastballs and using a wider palette of pitches. He is relying less on power and more on skill.

        “That's a product of experience,” said Dave Duncan, the Cardinals' pitching coach. “He didn't have overpowering stuff, but he had overpowering stuff because of the way he pitched — changing speeds, working counts. He was a real pitcher today.”

        Duncan said Benes' pattern may have been a product of working with an unfamiliar catcher, Carlos Hernandez.

        “Our other catchers all know Andy,” Duncan said. “With Carlos, he said, "I know he has a fastball, slider, curve ball and changeup,' and he assumed he would throw any of them at any time.”

        Other assumptions about Andy Benes will have to be adjusted. He has performed nobly under pressure. He should sleep in peace.



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