- What’s your hobby since retiring? A: Golf
- Greatest hitting catcher of all time, if you could say you: A: Me and Johnny Bench
- Chances of you ever becoming a blonde again: A: There’s a chance (*wink*)
- What’s on your iPod?: A: Van Halen
- Prediction for the Giants/49ers game: A: Giants, 21-17 (Wow – he almost nailed it to the point!)
- What hat will you wear if you’re inducted into the Hall of Fame?:A: Mets (*wink again*)
- Who was the most impressive pitcher you ever caught?: A: Greg Maddux and Armando Benitez
Wait. Armando Benitez? Wait, maybe Mike will wink again…that will make it better. Damn! He didn’t wink! But Benitez sucked, didn’t he?
Well, maybe not as much as we remember.
Yes, Benitez absolutely blew big saves (Hello, Game 1 of the 2000 World Series), but he put together some impressive numbers while working out of the Mets bullpen. Besides, the repeated sting of his 98-MPH fastball is probably etched into Piazza’s memory.
The Mets acquired Benitez to act as a setup man for John Franco in 1999. Rumblings began among the media and the fanbase about when, not if, Benitez would succeed Franco as the team’s closer. And the more Armando dominated the eighth inning, the louder that talk became.
When Franco went to the DL that year, Benitez grabbed hold of the closer’s role, and never let go. That year, he saved 22 games, while compiling an average of 14.8 strikeouts per nine innings, and a 1.04 WHIP.
His first full season as closer was the next year, in which he saved 41 games, struck out 12.6 batters per nine innings, and had 1.01 WHIP. It was that year, however, that he blew the Mets’ lead in Game 1 of the World Series – against the Yankees. There is perhaps no worse situation or moment to blow a save in our grand game of baseball. Benitez was never trusted again by Mets fans, and combined with the fact that that was only one of his 3 postseason blown saves (over a mere two-year span), they were justified.
In 2001, saved 43 games and K-ed 11 batters per nine, but his ERA, WHIP, and waistline expanded. He had an impressive 2002 and 2003 for bad teams, even making the All-Star team in ’03. Later that year, he was traded to the Yankees, and the not-so long, slightly strange trip came to an end.
Fans will always rightly remember Armando Benitez for the times he failed in the clutch. But he wasn’t the only Mets pitcher to do so. Billy Wagner was atrocious in the 2006 playoffs. If you’re looking for a goat in the ’06 NLCS, take Wagner and Guillermo Mota, not Carlos Beltran. Francisco Rodriguez never had a postseason opportunity, but he had his share of missteps.
So is was it a stretch for Piazza to call Benitez the most impressive pitcher he ever caught? No. He was the guy behind the plate, in a better position than any of us to judge who was the most impressive. But chances are, Piazza had “best stuff” in mind when he answered the question, and Benitez had an electric fastball.
Does that mean Benitez was the best pitcher in Mets history? No. Did a should-be Hall of Fame catcher call him impressive? Yes. I’ll take his word for it.