Mando Overboard 

After yesterday's dramatic series-clinching win over the Mets -- dubbed the "biggest win of the year" by expert pinch-hitter Jamey Wright -- there was so much to discuss. Terrible clutch hitting followed by clutch hitting. Matt Morris showing a glimmer of rebound before one hanging curve to Lastings Milledge. Felipe's weird personnel management.

But it will all be overshadowed by baseball's version of a quarterback controversy: Armando Benitez's closer job is in jeopardy. That's not just according to the blog-fan vultures who've been waiting for his carcass to drop to the desert floor from the moment he signed with the Giants. After yesterday's game, Mike Krukow even said so.

I don't have the exact quote, but in the post-game radio wrap Krukow basically called Mando out for the inexcusable pitch that Lastings Milledge hit over the left-field fence. One ball, two strikes; at the plate, a rookie who had shown a proclivity of swinging at bad pitches; Mando's off-speed stuff working well....and he throws a fastball down the middle. It was supposed to go low and away: a command mistake. Krukow was unusually harsh in his assessment and said Jeremy Accardo is ready to inherit the mantle.

Accardo has indeed been dominant of late: one hit in his last six games (8 IP, 0 BB, 6 K), and a gut-check save yesterday by retiring Delgado, Wright and Valentin without a murmur of trouble. He seems mentally and physically ready to close.

Here's the catch: despite his choke-job yesterday, Benitez isn't too bad either. Throw out 2005. Throw out the first few weeks of 2006. In the past couple weeks he's regained several MPH on his fastball and the break on his off-speed pitches. The stuff is back; it's now a matter of regaining control. Giving up on him now would be silly. If he's right, the guy is nasty. Don't moan about his history of choking; much of that reputation is from his days under the New York microscope and being unfairly compared to Mariano Rivera.

He's no Rivera, and no one else is, either. Round these precincts, we think of Robb Nen as our local gold standard, but look at his stats in '97 and '99. Shaky. Most closers have off-years.

Except for his lost-in-the-woods 2003, Benitez was one of the top closers in the 2000's. He struck out a lot of batters, kept men on base to about 1 per inning, and blew a small number of saves.

You could argue he's a choker by pointing to his post-season stats; I would counter that we're talking pretty small sample sizes, and most of the damage was done when he was a young jheri-curled hothead in Baltimore.

You could argue that recent history counts most, and since 2002 he's had one good year: 2004 with the Marlins. You could argue his K rates have declined since his heyday and even when healthy, he's in decline.

I don't have a strong counter-argument except to say recently he's been getting sharper, not duller. Putting aside the bad day in the Big Apple yesterday, Benitez is making progress from his return from injury last September. His fastball is back in the mid-90s, his off-speed stuff is dipping and darting and making batters look foolish. For those who didn't see the game, find clips of his save on Saturday, May 27 against Colorado. Watching that splitter and slider in combo with a 94-MPH fastball painting the corners should be enough to give you hope.

Accardo could supplant Benitez this year, but I'd like to see Armando get a couple more chances to show more progress. Having him back at his best or near-best with Accardo setting him up is too good a scenario to give up on right now.


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