One of the hardest throwers in the game, Benitez believed he could pump his blazing heater past any hitter at any time. The stocky Dominican right-hander seemed born unto a closer’s role, a job that allowed him to concentrate and then unleash the fury of his fastball into a violent inning-long exhibition of power pitching. But though he owned the raw stuff to overpower batters, Benitez struggled to master the mental side of the game and picked the worst moments to suffer meltdowns on the mound.
Working as a setup man for Baltimore in 1997, Benitez allowed just 49 hits while striking out 106 in 73 1/3 innings. But despite his abundant talent, he infuriated the Orioles with his bouts of ill-timed wildness and even worse-timed gopher balls. At times he seemed less concerned with getting batters out than with how hard he could throw, often turning around after pitches to see if he had hit triple digits on the radar gun results posted on the Camden Yards scoreboard.
In the eighth inning of a May 19th, 1998 game at Yankee Stadium Benitez incited an ugly brawl by drilling first baseman Tino Martinez square in the back after center fielder Bernie Williams slugged a three-run, upper-deck homer to erase 5-4 Orioles’ lead. Convinced his immaturity and lapses in concentration would keep him from reaching his full potential, the Orioles dealt Benitez to the Mets after the season. He took over as New York’s closer in July after John Franco sprained a tendon in his left hand and racked up 22 saves in little more than half a season, fanning an astonishing 128 batters in just 78 innings and allowing just 40 base hits. In 2000, he collected a club-record 41 saves in 47 opportunities.
For all his success during the regular season, however, Benitez struggled egregiously during the post-season. He allowed three game-winning hits in the Orioles’ six-game loss to Cleveland in the 1997 ALDS, including a three-run homer in the eighth inning of Game Two by Marquis Grissom and a pennant-winning home run by slap-hitting shortstop Tony Fernandez in the 11th inning of Game Six.
The pattern continued during Benitez’ tenure with the Mets, most notably during New York’s Division Series matchup with San Francisco, when he surrendered a game-tying three-run blast to J.T. Snow in the ninth inning of Game Two. The Mets rallied to win that game in extra innings, but weren’t so fortunate when Benitez blew another ninth-inning lead in Game One of the World Series against the crosstown rival Yankees. The Bombers won the game in the 12th and took the series in five games. In just 28 1/3 career post-season innings, Benitez had surrendered seven home runs, a record for a relief pitcher.