Former Cardinal ace Benes shows he will have a future

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

ST. LOUIS -- In the four years between starts, Alan Benes largely became a forgotten man.

Then the former ace of the St. Louis Cardinals' rotation turned back the clock. After six strong innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday, his team is anxious to see more.

Benes (2-0) was the stand-in starter for rookie Bud Smith, who threw 134 pitches in his no-hitter over the Padres and has logged 178 innings in the majors and minors this season. Benes may fill in for Smith again on Thursday in Milwaukee, especially after the way he pitched.

"It's a beautiful thing," catcher Mike Matheny said. "I'm very, very happy for him, and what I'm happiest about is to see him come out with the stuff he had."

The Dodgers, limited to three hits by Benes in the 6-5 loss, were impressed.

"You've got to give him credit," catcher Paul Lo Duca said. "I faced Alan last year in Triple-A and up here, and he's no slouch."

The Cardinals are concerned about Smith's high inning count. As for Benes, if Saturday's start against the Dodgers proves to be his only start the rest of the season, at least he's served notice for the future.

"It's been a long time since I got an opportunity to start a game in the big leagues and to be able to come out and pitch as well as I did," Benes said. "It's a great feeling."

Before the injury

Benes, 29, had a 95-mph fastball and a 2.89 ERA when he was sidelined in July 1997 with a shoulder injury that required two operations and kept him out 2 1/2 seasons. His record when he was sidelined was 9-9.

From there, it's been a lot of rehab and a lot of work, with very little payoff. He got two token relief appearances at the end of the 1999 season, and had a 5.67 ERA in 30 relief outings last year.

It looked like the former No. 1 draft pick was just hanging on.

"If they ever thought that," pitching coach Dave Duncan said, "they didn't know Alan Benes."

Benes began the season at Triple-A Memphis and was sent right back down after struggling in a brief stint with the Cardinals in May, figuring he'd end the year in the minors. He hasn't had a setback since.

"The way I looked at it, I needed to do everything I could to get better, so that come next year I'm going to have a chance to make a major league team as a starter," Benes said.

He earned the start against the Dodgers by posting a 1.89 ERA in his last seven minor league starts.

"I'm sure he's really been scuffling, doubting himself," Matheny said. "To see him progress that much this summer and keep a positive attitude and not really get down, to keep pushing, that's great."

Still, he was as surprised as anyone when the Cardinals chose him to fill in for Smith.

"This opportunity really kind of blindsided me," Benes said. "I figured if I got a start at all it would be one of the last few games of the season when either we were in the playoffs already or we were out of the playoffs."

These days, Benes' fastball tops out at about 89 mph. But he's learned over time that he doesn't have to overpower the hitters.

"I don't throw as hard as I used to," Benes said. "Other than that, I think I'm still the same way I was in 1996 or '97."

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