Friday, July 07, 2006

Benson Swats His Way to History

Noting what only comes around once every 33 years

By Christopher Heun

This blog would not be doing its duty if it did not recognize the amazing feat accomplished recently by Kris Benson, especially since I was there to witness it.

You know what I’m talking about, even though it happened three weeks ago and has nothing to do with how he’s been pitching (which is pretty well, or at least well enough; the most reliable starter behind Erik Bedard).

One swing of his bat grabbed all the attention. The home run Benson hit June 17 was remarkable because he is a pitcher, of course, and not known for his skills with the lumber. But even more amazing, the ex-Met managed his first career dinger in Shea Stadium, during his return to New York after last winter’s trade to Baltimore. And he hit it against Pedro Martinez of all people, one of the greatest hurlers of his generation.

Given the circumstances, Benson’s longball may be the most famous by a pitcher in Orioles history since Dave McNally’s grand slam in Game 3 of the 1970 World Series. [For the record, Mike Cuellar hit a slam of his own in the A.L. Championship Series that same year.] It was the first homer by an Orioles pitcher in more than 33 years, dating back to the days before the designated hitter.

Today, there’s something about watching a pitcher hit a home run that feels like winning the lottery. Blame the DH.

I was at the game that Benson described as "one of the best, if not the best” of his life. From the upper deck on the third base side, I watched his fly ball carry out to left field. And keep carrying. And keep carrying. Until it dropped just beyond the fence and the awkward glove of Lastings Milledge, who might have saved his team a run if instead of jumping he had focused all of his energy on pushing the wall another couple inches away from the field.

The crowd was too stunned to boo. There was only silence as 52,320 people looked at each other and asked silently, “Did you see that?”

The only other pitcher to ever take Pedro deep is Doug Drabek, 13 years ago, when Martinez was a 21-year-old rookie. Back then, before the three Cy Young awards and the seven All-Star game appearances, Pedro was a strikeout machine with a blazing fastball.

But on this night, the scoreboard said the 3-1 pitch was 86 miles an hour. Not long ago, Pedro threw 10 miles an hour faster. That’s probably why the scoreboard operator, when required to identify the pitch, figured anything that slow had to be a changeup.

But after the game, Pedro told the Associated Press that he had challenged Benson with a fastball. “Whenever I fall behind [a pitcher] I'm not going to fool around. Make him hit it. The next time up he popped up to center field. Same pitch. Same location. Fastball. Eighty-five, 86 miles per hour."

Yes, Pedro Martinez now throws 86 mile an hour fastballs. We’ll leave that topic to Mets fans to
discuss amongst themselves.

Most important, the home run tied the score in the top of the third and completely reversed the momentum of the game after Benson had squeezed his way out of a bases-loaded jam the previous inning.

The game had started poorly for him. He allowed two runs in the bottom of the first after fielding a Paul Lo Duca bunt and throwing past Kevin Millar at first base. As Jose Reyes scampered home and Lo Duca took second, Benson stood alone inside the diamond, hands on his hips, looking like a man playing a boys’ game and wanting to start everything over again.

But the homer changed all that. He wound up throwing eight innings, never giving up another run and the O’s went on to win, 4-2.

So who was the last Orioles pitcher to homer? Roric Harrison, in the final game of 1972, before the American League adopted the designated hitter at the start of the following season.

A name like Roric Harrison reminds me of the impromptu list of Best Rookie Names of 2006 that I’ve been compiling. If only Hayden Penn could have dodged his appendicitis and made a start at Shea, he might have faced Lastings Milledge in a matchup that radio broadcasters surely dream about. Those two, along with Cole Hamels of the Phillies, have to top the list. The Marlins have a pair of relievers, Logan Kensing and Taylor Tankersley, who, should they ever warm together in the bullpen, sound like four partners in a law firm. And lastly, though Minnesota just demoted him, the list wouldn’t be complete without Boof Bonser. If the pitching thing doesn’t work out, there’s always Sha Na Na.

The woman sitting next to me made a few harmless comments about Benson after his trot around the bases, with her son leaning over to add that he was a bigger fan of the Wife Who Shall Remain Nameless.

When his mom left for ice cream, the kid, who looked at least three years shy of his learner’s permit, slid over into her empty seat and started what would become a four inning long conversation with “So, who’s your favorite player?”

I had to think for a moment. Did I even have one? When was the last time I did? Tim Hullett, Chito Martinez and Jim Dwyer suddenly came to mind but instead I offered up Miguel Tejada, thinking it was what he wanted to hear. Then I remembered the
love letter I had written Melvin Mora, the most Oriole of them all.

The kid was full of opinions.

“You need a power hitter to play first base.”

“Someone should feed Fahey more. That guy’s too skinny.”

“You could have had Milledge but you drafted Markakis instead. Did you know that?”

He’s right: Markakis was the seventh pick in 2003; Milledge, the twelfth. Both teams passed on Chad Cordero, the biggest success of that draft, whom nineteen teams overlooked before the Expos selected him. He saved 47 games last year at age 23.

Another young closer was chosen that year, too: The Orioles selected Chris Ray in the third round.

Since the Benson gem in Queens, Milledge has been sent back to the minors (“He’s another Gregg Jeffries,” I told the kid, who probably wasn’t even born when the Mets were hyping their former “can’t-miss” prospect). Markakis, meanwhile, has caught fire, putting to rest whispers that he should be demoted, too. Markakis has raised his batting average 51 points since June 13, to .272. His on-base percentage is a respectable .340 for an OPS of .695, which while not great, isn’t that far behind Jeff Conine or Kevin Millar.

What I didn’t understand about the calls to send down Markakis is who would replace him every day in the outfield. The stick figure-like Brandon Fahey, who’s not even an outfielder himself?

Fahey, a utilityman in training whose stats this season are nearly identical to those of Markakis, drove in the go-ahead run while playing left field. The night before, he had two hits, including a triple, scored two runs, knocked in two more and even stole a base.

He had outplayed Milledge, but the night belonged to Benson.

4 comments:

bob said...

Chito is one of my all-time fave O's too, alomg with Randy Milligan and The Otter.

Matthew Taylor said...

Thanks for the comment. You're definitely speaking my language

Chris and I joined another friend at Memorial Stadium years ago in some rousing "CHITO" cheers from the right field bleachers.

And I was definitely sold on the Moose, too. As a teenager, I caught one of Milligan's home run balls during batting practice on 33rd Street. It meant a lot at the time, but I'm not sure where the ball is these days. The memory's still there, though.

Anonymous said...

Hands down, John Lowenstein was my favorite. None other like Brutha Low.

Matthew Taylor said...

Fair enough. Lowenstein's a legend, too. Although I think I got more enjoyment from his broadcast career. You never knew what he was going to say next, a fact that you could tell made his broadcast partner(s) nervous.