- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2002

ST. LOUIS (AP) Four months after Andy Benes nearly retired, saddled with an unsightly 10.80 ERA and an arthritic right knee, he found a way to dominate hitters again.
The St. Louis Cardinals' right-hander, who used to be a power pitcher with a fastball in the low-90s and a hard-breaking slider, is tricking the opposition these days with a split-finger fastball a big part of his new arsenal.
He got some tips on the pitch from new teammate Chuck Finley after the Cardinals, who have been dogged by pitching woes all season, revived his career by activating him in mid-July.
"I said, 'Man, that looks like a pretty good pitch,'" Benes said. "It's something I've been able to grab and get some confidence with. It's been huge."
Benes wasted no time putting the new pitch into service.
"I didn't really have time," he said. "I'm working on a start-to-start basis, so I threw around in the bullpen with it and took it straight to the game."
The fastball now is in the mid to high-80s, but it's become a weapon again because the splitter looks the same to hitters.
Pitching coach Dave Duncan said the transformation was a mental challenge more than a physical one for Benes.
"Physically he's very capable, and he's always had good control," Duncan said. "I think it was just accepting that was going to have to be the way he was going to have to pitch to be effective."
Benes said his brother Alan, a former power-pitching teammate with the Cardinals who's attempting a comeback of his own in the Chicago Cubs' system, can't believe the makeover.
"Alan calls me and says 'How in the world are you getting them out with what you're throwing up there?'" Benes said. "I say 'I'm not sure, but I'm going to keep doing it.'"
The Pittsburgh Pirates have been befuddled by the new Benes, who turned 35 yesterday, his last two outings. Benes (3-3) struck out seven and walked two in seven shutout innings in a 7-2 victory on Monday and gave up two runs and two hits in six innings in another victory last week in Pittsburgh.
Other teams have been getting the same treatment from the guy who not long ago was a human punching bag, allowing 10 runs in three innings at Arizona on April 15, the day before he was placed on the disabled list.
"I've been at home eating chips with the kids and watching games on TV," Benes said.
Since his return he has a 1.87 ERA with only 24 hits allowed in 43⅓ innings, and there isn't much talk anymore about the bulky brace he has to wear.
Benes was an 18-game winner for the Cardinals' NL Central championship team in 1996, but likely he's never pitched as well as he has his last five starts. In that stretch he's 3-0 with a 1.14 ERA.
"Every time he goes out there, it's just another big accomplishment," manager Tony La Russa said. "It's just a great story."
The secret is keeping the hitters off-balance. Last year Benes stubbornly tried to be a power pitcher despite losing several mph off his fastball and paid the price with a 7.38 ERA. He wasn't used after Aug. 30. Now he's learned to locate his fastball, slider and splitter for maximum effect with minimal oomph.
During his run, he's thrown all three of his pitches fastball, slider, splitter on any count.
"Before, I was a lot more predictable," Benes said. "The biggest thing is I'm taking what I have and being aggressive with it. Whatever I have, I just grab it and throw it up there, and keep it down."
This approach takes more concentration than before, but he's learned to adjust to that, too.
"We score some runs, and Tony keeps saying 'Keep pushing,'" Benes said. "But when you're not featuring a 95 mph fastball, it's not tough to keep your focus out there. The hitters are going to let you know in a hurry."

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