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Benes Is the Unlikely Hero for Cardinals

October 15, 2000|ROSS NEWHAN

NEW YORK — OK, so it wasn't as if the St. Louis pitching staff was in total disarray as the Cardinals prepared to face the New York Mets in a virtual survival test Saturday.

No, it was just that they were down, two games to none, against the Mets in the National League's best-of-seven championship series, were operating with a depleted rotation and overworked bullpen, and might have been receptive if the constituent Rams had volunteered to fly in Kurt Warner.

As it developed, the quarterback's arm wasn't needed, at least in Game 3.

Andy Benes provided an improbable--and, perhaps, temporary--panacea with eight dogged innings in an 8-2 victory that ended Met visions of a four-game sweep.


Consider that Benes himself was one of the Cardinals' biggest pitching concerns, limping to the mound on a right knee that will soon require surgery while also encumbered by a 6.44 earned-run average and 0-1 record for seven postseason appearances in the '90s.

"It's a new century," he said before delivering the first of 115 pitches that helped give his team new life, although the Cardinal rotation remains problematic.

"The single biggest thing we needed tonight was Andy pitching like he did," Manager Tony La Russa said, citing the state of his starting and relief pitching. "I don't put limits on what we can do, but going down 0-3 would have been difficult. Andy gave us a chance in the series and made a hell of a personal statement. He has every reason to be proud. I don't know a lot of pitchers who wouldn't have shut it down long ago given the condition of his knee."

The 33-year-old right-hander last pitched on Oct. 1. He was 12-9 in his return to the Cardinals (with whom he spent the 1996 and '97 seasons) as a free agent, making 25 starts before going on the disabled list Aug. 19. He came off the list Sept. 3 and made three starts and two relief appearances down the stretch--his right knee needing to be drained because of the frayed cartilage before each start and requiring Benes to wear a brace to keep it stable when he pitches.

"I'm just very thankful that I'm able to compete because of my knee problem," Benes said. "I'd like to be 100%, but this is the way it is.

"If I wasn't excited about this team and being able to put my piece into something really nice here at the end of the year, I'd have had the surgery two months ago."

Benes gave up six hits, walked three and struck out five. He got Mike Piazza to ground into a double play after the first two Mets reached base in the first inning and got Jay Payton to ground into another with the bases loaded in the fourth. He also put the knee to a severe test when he singled and ultimately scored from second with a head-first slide on a single by Edgar Renteria in the fourth and added a sacrifice bunt during a three-run fifth.

"I don't have the fastball I normally do because the knee prevents me from pushing off," Benes said. "But I watched Bobby Jones [of the Mets] pitch a great game against the Giants [a one-hitter in Game 4 of the division series] and it was a reminder that I need to go about it like he did, changing speeds and using both sides of the plate.

"In some ways the knee has been a blessing. I've learned that I don't have to be overpowering, that I just need to make good pitches. I was comfortable with the idea that I'd be able to do that.

"As I've said, pressure is when you don't know where you're going to sleep at night. I was excited by this opportunity. I don't think there could be a better arena other than St. Louis in which to make a postseason start. I have a lot of faith and looked on it as a divine appointment.

"I mean, I was on the other side with Arizona last year and didn't get a chance. I waited a long time. Thankfully, this was the best I've pitched in the postseason."

Benes hadn't made a postseason appearance since 1996. He watched from the bullpen last year as the Diamondbacks started Randy Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre, Omar Daal and Brian Anderson in a division series loss to the Mets.

"I was available in case our backup infielder didn't get them out, but that's water under the bridge," a facetious Benes said, happy to be back with the Cardinals, happy with his Saturday success and happy to relieve some of the ongoing Cardinal concerns.

With Rick Ankiel banished to the bullpen because of wildness and Garrett Stephenson not even on the roster because of elbow problems, Darryl Kile will pitch on three days rest tonight, Pat Hentgen (ripped in his final two regular-season starts and inactive since Sept. 30) will start Game 5 and Benes may have to come back on three days rest in Game 6, if a sixth game is needed.

Would his knee tolerate that?

"Other than tomorrow," Benes said, smiling. "I'll be ready whenever they need me."

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