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Sunday, 05/19/2002 6:37:55 AM

Sunday, May 19, 2002 6:37:55 AM

Post# of 204138
Benson back, better than before
Pittsburgh starter goes seven innings in loss to 'Stros
By Jim Molony /

HOUSTON -- At long last Kris Benson is back.
After a 20-month layoff because of an elbow injury followed by the worst outing of his career, the Pittsburgh right-hander finally looked like he was ready to reclaim his No. 1 starter status Saturday night against the Houston Astros.

"This was my best outing in the Major Leagues for almost two years," Benson said. "It's a big relief for me to know I can still perform well up here."

Benson, who was rocked for nine runs in 3 2/3 innings against Arizona Monday in his first start since Oct. 1, 2000, was superb against the Astros, displaying the form that convinced the Pirates to select him with the No. 1 pick of the '96 draft and helped him win 21 games during 1999-2000.

After giving up a run on two hits in the first inning, Benson held the Astros scoreless the rest of the way before leaving for a pinch hitter in the eighth inning.

Benson, who did not receive a decision -- the Pirates lost 2-1 on Jose Vizcaino's walk-off homer with one out in the ninth inning -- went seven innings and gave up one run on six hits. He walked two batters and struck out five. Of the 96 pitches Benson threw, 66 were strikes.

"He pitched an outstanding game," Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon said. "He had good velocity, just like he did (against Arizona), the difference tonight was he had his command. When he has his command and stays ahead of hitters, he can be very tough."

Benson, the first overall pick of the 1996 draft, underwent "Tommy John" surgery last May. He was expected to be Pittsburgh's No. 1 starter entering the 2001 season, but complained of soreness in his right elbow during Spring Training and tests revealed the injury. Dr. James Andrews of Birmingham, Ala., performed the operation May 22, 2001, replacing Benson's damaged elbow ligament with a ligament from the pitcher's wrist.

"Physically I'm fine," Benson said. "Everything is happening on schedule like it's supposed to. But after that first start and the way things started tonight it's a relief that things turned around and were more normal for me after that. I knew I had good velocity and tonight my control was much better."

Benson retired 20 of the last 26 batters he faced. He also contributed his first hit since the 2000 season, a double to right off Houston starter Tim Redding in the fifth.

"For the most part he was pretty dominating after the first inning," McClendon said.

"It was night and day compared to (Monday) as far as location of the pitches," Benson said. "I had a good sinker and I was able to throw my breaking balls for strikes and when I do that the hitters can't just sit on my fastball like (the Diamondbacks) did."

Benson lowered his ERA from 17.18 to 6.75. The only right-handed hitter to record a hit off the 27-year-old was Julio Lugo, who led off the home half of the first with a base hit to left. Houston's other five hits against Benson, including four singles and a double, were recorded by left-handed hitters.

"Same Benson that I remember," Houston first baseman Jeff Bagwell said. "(He) has great stuff, hits (his) fastball on both sides of the plate. Slider, curveball, changeup ... he's dominating. He was great two years ago and it looks like he's fully recovered. He could probably pitch better. That shows how good he is. The great ones, when they don't have their best stuff, still dominate."

Houston third base coach Gene Lamont, who was Benson's manager during the pitcher's first two years in the league, watched his former charge's comeback effort with interest.

"He looked OK, he can be a dominating pitcher," Lamont said. "He was good, but I didn't think he was as dominating as he can be. He's got four above-average pitches: Fastball, curveball, slider and change. Most guys are three-pitch guys.

"(Before the injury) I thought he was the best junk pitcher in the league. His control was probably better this time than his last time, but we hit some balls real hard. I don't want to take anything away from him. He usually throws around 95, 96 (miles per hour) and tonight he was at 92, 93."

Benson will try to stretch it out to 110 or 115 pitches in his next outing, scheduled for next weekend against St. Louis.

"The key for me is to go out and show everybody I'm performing well," Benson said. "This was the first good start I've had in a long time."