Ding Dong, Armando’s Gone!
by Richard Van Zandt, BaseballEvolution.com
June 1, 2007

It’s over. Finally and mercifully it’s over. The acrimonious and tumultuous union between the San Francisco Giants and Armando Benitez ended on Thursday night when Giants GM Brian Sabean informed the beleaguered closer as his now former teammates battled the Mets, that he had been unceremoniously dumped onto the Florida Marlins’ doorstep. In return for Benitez and most of the $7.6 million still owed him, the Giants received 25-year-old Randy Messenger, a hard throwing six-foot-six, 240 pound right hander. Of course, what the Giants actually got in return hardly mattered. Messenger…Matt Lindstrom…Rick Vanden Hurk…it just didn’t matter. What mattered was eradicating the team of the quite possibly the biggest clubhouse cancer the City of San Francisco has ever seen.

When the union first formed it seemed to make sense. Of course there were risks involved. Benitez had a history of failure in dramatic situations, including the 1997 ALCS when he surrendered the legendary Jeffrey Meier home run. But he also came to the team immediately following the best season of his big league career.

In 2004 for the Marlins, Benitez saved a league-high 47 games in 51 opportunities and recorded a 1.29 ERA (317 ERA+), 0.81 WHIP and a .152 batting average against. He joined the Giants in 2005 sporting the fourth highest save percentage among all active pitchers (86.2% - 244 saves in 283 opps) and the lowest BAA (even now at .193 he is second behind only Billy Wagner’s .187).

Additionally, in 2004 the Giants had muddled by with Matt Herges and Dustin Hermanson manning a closer position that had been in flux since the great Robb Nen heroically gave all he had to give in 2002. Signing Benitez really did make sense at the time.

Things went sour almost immediately.

In just his third appearance for San Francisco, he blew a 3-run lead to rival Los Angeles and in his first 8 games as a Giant he had 2 blown saves, a 5.79 ERA and .306 BAA in 9.1 innings (11 H, 4 BB, 4 K, 6 ER). Then on April 26 against San Diego, Benitez having already blown his second save of the season, vultured a win, but at the same time tore tendons in his hamstring covering first base on the game’s final play.

The injury was similar to the one that earlier in the year had befallen Cubs 3B Nomar Garciaparra. He need an operation and was supposed to miss a minimum of four months and possibly the entire year, making a September return a best case scenario.

But Benitez worked hard to rehab injured hamstring (just weeks after the surgery he was throwing on the field with his leg strapped to a cart) and managed to return to the team on August 18. He pitched in 12 games down the stretch for the Giants and saved 9 games in 10 opportunities. His ERA in 11 innings was 3.27 (7 H, 6 BB, 13 K, 4 ER) and his BAA was .175. I gave him due credit for battling to return so quickly and pitching effectively, even though it was clear he didn’t have his best stuff. I remained confident that he would have a successful 2006 season. Such was not the case.

Benitez struggled in ’06, his 3.52 ERA (128 ERA+) not reflective of his .267 BAA and 1.56 WHIP, nor was it more indicative of his performance than his 8 blown saves in 25 opps. Benitez has said that he rushed back too soon in ’05 and injured his arthritic knees in the process. Considering how hard he’d worked to make it back and how well he’d pitched afterwards, I felt that despite all the warning signs, Armando deserved some leeway. Until that July 26th, that is. That particular night in Washington, Benitez blew his second consecutive save and his sixth of the year and then went on to publicly deflect blame onto his teammates.

“The leadoff walk was my fault, but I got the ground ball for the double play but it was missed," Benitez told reporters at the time. "I did my job but everyone has to do their job.”

Giants fans and local media alike, many of whom had already grown loathe of his arrogant attitude, skewered Benitez for failing to own up. He didn’t take blame for either the hit that followed or the game winning sac fly. He simply wasn’t getting the job done, nor was he taking any accountability. “I did my job,” didn’t sit well with anyone, especially when he blew his very next save op in Pittsburgh.

I stopped publicly defending him, even though I still felt that he presented the Giants with their best option. There just wasn’t anyone else who could do the job better. And I swear Jeremy Accardo just didn’t seem ready for the job then or possibly ever. Damn that Shea Hillenbrand. Oops, off topic.

This past off-season, the Giants were encouraged by Brian Wilson’s winterball numbers. There were rampant rumors that Benitez would be traded and Wilson anointed his successor. Florida was the most often mentioned destination, especially once Jonathan Papelbon returned to the closer role in Boston. But I remained (and remain) skeptical of Wilson’s walk total (21 in 30 IP in ’06, 7 in 11.2 2007 spring innings and 11 in 12.1 innings at Fresno so far this season) and his ability to do the job.

For better or worse, heading into the ’07 season and up until recently, Benitez remained, in my opinion, the Giants best option. I no longer supported him publicly, yet still felt, especially as he entered his contract year, that he could still possibly salvage something of his tenure here.

And initially he wasn’t even too bad. Erratic but not too bad. In his first 10 games he posted a 1.80 ERA and a .211 BAA while converting all seven of his save opportunities. He even had 1-2-3 innings in 3 of those last 4 outings. But beginning with a May 9 blown save against the Mets in San Francisco (also the site of J.T. Snow’s dramatic HR off of Armando in the 2000 NLDS), he went on to post an 8.59 ERA and a .310 BAA in his next 7 games. He had 2 blown saves and earned losses in two other games where he entered with the score tied. He was 9-for-10 in saves on the year, yet he now utterly failed to inspire any confidence whatsoever when he took the mound and the wrath of the faithful grew louder and more vicious with every magnified mistake.

The final straw, however, came Tuesday night in Shea Stadium against the Mets in the bottom of the 12th inning.

The Giants’ inept offense that night had managed to battle back and tie the game up 3-3 on a 7th inning HR by Dan Ortmeier that got rookie Tim Lincecum off the hook. The pen was then able to hang on through the 11th before the offense scrapped a run home in the 12th. On came Armando.

He got things started by walking perhaps the fastest player in baseball, Jose Reyes. Reyes, with 28 steals on the year, did not swipe second despite Benitez’s inability to hold a runner close. No, before he could steal the bag, Armando instead balked him to second. After Endy Chavez bunted him to third and getting Carlos Beltran out on a grounder to second, Benitez inexplicably balked again, plating the tying run. This was followed five pitches later by Carlos Delgado’s second mammoth home run of the night. Game over. The loss was infuriating, and Giants fans now demanded Sabean do something.

Now in his defense, the first balk called by the notorious Balkin’ Bob Davidson was a little questionable. The second, however, was inexcusable. But what really did it for me was the sight of Armando, standing defiantly with hands on hips behind the mound, looking for the entire world as if it was really he who had been wronged.

After the game he owned up, saying, “I lost the game…I didn’t do my job.” But later of course the excuses came out. His knee was injured in the loss and fluid was drained on Wednesday. Manager Bruce Bochy defended his player as any good manager would do publicly. Though by this time, there remained absolutely no one in San Francisco that gave a damn. “It’s been a battle between him and the fans,” the popular Giants shortstop Omar Vizquel told reporters after the lackluster loss Thursday.

With the disclosure of the knee injury, Benitez was not expected to pitch for the next few days. Brad Hennessey got the call to close out Barry Zito’s gem on Wednesday night. As it would turn out, Balkin’ Armando Benitez had thrown his last pitch as a Giant.

I personally no longer care that I really don’t think there is a better option in the bullpen. It just doesn’t matter so long as Armando Benitez is gone. Long, long gone.

Let Brad Hennessey have a shot. Give Russ Ortiz the ball. Maybe try Kevin Correia. It doesn’t matter. They can’t do much worse than Benitez has (14 blown saves as a Giant) and the benefit of his leaving now easily outweighed any possible negative.

Armando had become monumentally detrimental to the team and all that remained was for Benitez to be formally run out of town. That glorious moment every Giant now dreamed of came to pass on Thursday when Sabean (who himself is on the hot seat) realized that he could no longer rationalize Benitez’ place on the roster to anyone and got the Marlins graciously to agree to take him off the Giants hands (so long as they didn’t have to pay for him). They even courteously gave San Francisco a token player in return. And all it cost Sabean was $7.6 million.

Worth every damn penny if you ask me.

Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Richard resides in San Francisco, California and can be reached at richard@baseballevolution.com.