Benitez Weathering Storm Of Relief Woes
The words had barely escaped Peter Gammons’ mouth on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight when an uneasy feeling began to permeate the visiting locker room at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park.
According to Gammons, four and maybe five teams would be interested in the services of Armando Benitez if the Mets decided to deal their veteran closer, words that may have been music to any number of fans’ ears but certainly not to Benitez himself.
"Papi, I’ll be seeing you, baby," backup catcher Vance Wilson said, leaning in to shake Benitez’s hand goodbye as the big Dominican righty laughed.
Love him or hate him – and judging by the fan outcry this week, there’s a whole lot more of the latter – the truth is that Benitez is locked in to be the Mets’ closer for at least a while more.
Some might suggest that Benitez would make an interesting case study for a sports psychologist – he has the physical makeup of a dominating, intimidating warrior on the mound, with his burly build, angry scowl and a blistering 98-mph fastball.
But inside, Benitez looks to be more kitten than tiger; he’s tender, easily pierced by criticism and seems to be insecure with his own abilities and standing in the public eye.
Look no further than the recent week’s events: after surrendering a three-run homer to the Expos’ Jeff Liefer last Sunday at Shea Stadium, Benitez whined to the media that they never pay attention to him when he saves a game (he’s done a lot of that, compiling a 90.7% save percentage over the last three seasons, the highest in the majors).
"Be in my position," Benitez said then. "You do the job three days in a row, and nobody comes to talk to you and say, ‘How do you feel?’ It’s not fair."
In all honesty, it really isn’t, but just like a field goal kicker in the NFL, closers like Benitez are expected to do their jobs. It’s only newsworthy when they don’t, and holding a high save percentage like Benitez does makes it only more so.
It’s an established fact that when a starting pitcher, say Tom Glavine, throws seven or eight strong innings and a closer comes in to nail down the save, Glavine should get most of the credit. You’d never hear guys like Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman complain about it, but Benitez doesn’t seem to have received that memo.
Even more troubling, however, is Benitez’s inability to let his failures go. As we saw in his recent skid, blowing three save opportunities against the Expos and Marlins over a span of eight days, a failed outing on any given night can bring a hangover effect to Benitez’s next appearance.
"Armando has a tough time turning the page," former Mets closer John Franco told the Bergen Record recently. "I try to talk to him all the time, tell him, ‘forget it, you’ll get [them] tomorrow.’ A closer has to forget, right away. But Armando doesn’t do that very easily."
Prior to this season, it was a valid point of speculation as to how Benitez would handle the absence of his biggest supporter, Bobby Valentine, in the manager’s office.
So far, new skipper Art Howe has said all the right things publicly regarding Benitez, but this is a new ballgame for Howe – after handling guys like Jason Isringhausen and Billy Koch in Oakland, Benitez’s sensitivity is something of a different wrinkle.
Still, for those of you who flooded the lines of New York’s sports talk radio stations this past week hoping to see Mike Stanton, Scott Strickland or Jaime Cerda as the new Mets’ closer, don’t hold your breath. Howe is in Benitez’s camp for the long haul.
"That’s not even close to happening," Howe said in Puerto Rico, asked if he had any intention of bouncing Benitez from the closer’s role. "[It would happen] when he’s not on this club, and I don’t foresee that happening. He’s our closer. For me, he’s the guy."
•The Mets aren’t the only team having trouble closing out games – young Red Sox GM Theo Epstein’s brilliant idea of having a closer-by-committee has been a massive failure so far, perfectly summarized by Tuesday’s game against the Devil Rays at Boston’s Fenway Park.
Manager Grady Little turned over Casey Fossum’s 5-1 lead to the bullpen, and quickly watched the four-run advantage evaporate, with former Yankee Ramiro Mendoza (16.71 ERA) giving it all back without retiring a batter.
The Sox may finally be admitting that the four-headed closer concept isn’t working, optioning reliever Bobby Howry (12.46 ERA) to Triple-A on Wednesday.
"We’ve got to shake it up and find a formula that works," Little said, earning ‘Understatement of the Week’ honors.
Think they’d be among Gammons’ speculative group of teams interested in taking Benitez off of New York’s hands?
Bryan Hoch appears weekly in the Wave. He can be contacted at email@example.com.