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St. Louis vs. Arizona

Staff Infection: Williams Out, Benes Hurting

October 02, 2002|Newsday

PHOENIX — In the National League division series that has been reduced to a battle of attrition between the defending champion Arizona Diamondbacks and the resurgent St. Louis Cardinals, count Woody Williams out and put a question mark alongside the name of Andy Benes.

The advantage in starting pitching that Arizona enjoyed on paper widened before the first batter stepped into the box at Bank One Ballpark on Tuesday night. Williams, nominated to start Game 3 for St. Louis, was left off the roster when a muscle pull failed to respond to treatment and the availability of his understudy, Benes, is jeopardized by back problems.

"I'm kind of the fill-in guy," said Benes, who contemplated retirement from baseball early in the season during a 60-day stint on the disabled list an arthritic right knee. "I don't look at it any differently than that. I'm filling in for one of our top three starters."

Williams, whose 2.53 earned-run average was the best among Cardinal starters, experienced a strained abdominal muscle on three occasions this season. He made his last appearance Sept. 20, the night his team clinched the Central Division title, when he was pulled in the fifth inning with tightness in his left side.

"We got him out right away," Manager Tony La Russa said before Game 1. "We thought he would catch a break, he would heal."

Under ordinary circumstances, Benes would appear to be a qualified substitute. Since regaining a spot in the rotation in July, he won five of seven decisions and his 1.86 ERA after the All-Star break was the best in the major leagues. He also boasts considerable postseason experience, culminating in an 8-2 victory over the New York Mets in the 2000 NL championship series.

But Benes had to leave his last start--a 4-0 victory over Milwaukee on Sunday--after five innings because of tightness in his knee and back. Although the veteran right-hander said he felt a lot better Tuesday than he did two days earlier, the manager wasn't brimming with confidence.

"He's a big man," La Russa said. "And backs are notorious. He's going to get treatment, do everything he can. If he can't go, Jason will get the ball."

That would be Jason Simontacchi, a 28-year-old rookie whose 11 wins ranked second on the depleted St. Louis staff. In a season that reached its nadir when ace Darryl Kile died in his Chicago hotel room June 22, the Cardinals needed 26 pitchers to gain their place in the playoffs.

Benes, who was on a rehabilitation assignment with Memphis, wasn't even with the team at the time of the tragedy.

He had felt out of the picture a month earlier. "I was at home," he recalled, "on the couch. The only pitching I was doing was to my 6-year-old. A lot of crazy things happened to get me into this but here I am."

The back pain he has felt, he said, was the result of favoring his knee. A session with a chiropractor has convinced him he will be able to pitch this weekend when the series resumes in St. Louis.

"I'm thankful for the opportunity," Benes said. "Pitching at home is always fun."

Williams' place on the roster was filled by Garrett Stephenson, a veteran right-hander who made 10 starts for the Cardinals and lost five of seven decisions.

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