The opening was there for Armando Benitez, as large as the earned run average of the bullpen he left. Here he was, returning to Oriole Park at Camden Yards for the first time since his offseason trade to the New York Mets, starring as a closer for a contender while the Orioles' relief corps is in shambles.
The opening was there for him to trash the Orioles for not keeping him, for not believing he could be their closer. He saw the opening, hinted at it, but mostly declined to take advantage of it. Even when he did criticize his former employers, he did it with a smile.
Does he feel he was treated fairly by the Orioles?
"No, but it's fine," he said. "Right now, I'm very happy."
He was even happier after picking up the save in the Mets' 8-6 win tonight. Benitez entered the game to a chorus of boos in the ninth. He walked Brady Anderson on five pitches, then struck out Jeff Reboulet, who had replaced Mike Bordick. But while Reboulet was batting, Anderson stole second, eliminating the possibility of a ground-ball double play and forcing Benitez to face the two of the Orioles' best hitters, B.J. Surhoff and Albert Belle, with the game on the line.
Benitez didn't blink. He got both players to fly out, Surhoff to center and Belle to right, and all that was left was for Benitez to deny the game was unusual.
"It was normal," he said. "I feel good . . . every day I come to the ballpark I feel good."
And for good reason. As the second half of the season unfolds, Benitez, 26, has everything he wanted but didn't have with the Orioles in last season's second half. With John Franco on the disabled list with a sprained tendon in his left (throwing) hand, Benitez has been the Mets' closer, and he's been dominant.
In his last 34 appearances, the right-hander has a 1.54 ERA, and he has struck out 57 in his last 35 innings. Meanwhile, the Orioles' bullpen has a 5.96 ERA and has allowed 41 earned runs in its last 47 innings.
Benitez didn't point that out. He did, however, defend his performance in a audition as closer in the first half of last season; he was relegated to a role in the closer-by-committee approach Manager Ray Miller adopted in the second half.
"I was the closer and I saved 22 of 26," Benitez said. "We only lost four [of the leads]. What do you want from me? I think I did a good job."
Charles Johnson has done a good job too, Miller was quick to point out. Johnson, the catcher who landed in Baltimore as part of the trade that sent Todd Hundley from the Mets to the Los Angeles Dodgers, has been brilliant defensively, and the Orioles see him as a cornerstone in their rebuilding effort. Neither Baltimore nor New York is complaining about the deal.
"That's what you want," Miller said of the win-win scenario. "You listen to these idiot talk shows, they're like the Easter Bunny. They want you to trade a utility infielder for a starting pitcher."
In the last month, Benitez has pulled off one of the most difficult feats in baseball. He has stepped into the most pressure-filled position in its most pressure-filled city, and he has found peace. "I'm more comfortable," he said. "I'd rather be on a team like this."
Benitez is also more comfortable with his coaches; in Baltimore, he chafed at suggestions that he should alter his pitching style. In New York, the hulking reliever has used his high-octane fastball effectively, but not exclusively. Mets pitching coach Dave Wallace said Benitez has been open to all suggestions.
"Apparently, that has sunk in," Wallace said. "He has done much more than just overpower people. He has his breaking ball, his [split-fingered fastball] working."
Still, Benitez has not transformed into a low-maintenance, easygoing pitcher overnight. Even Wallace says Benitez is "one of those guys you have to talk to every day."
He's a lot happier to talk these days than he was a year ago.
CAPTION: Being with the Mets has improved the spirits of ex-Orioles reliever Armando Benitez, who said, "I'd rather be on a team like this."