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Pirates Benson receives boost, a 25-pitch effort results in guarded optimism

Tuesday, April 17, 2001

By Paul Meyer, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Kris Benson made 25 pitches off the Pirates' bullpen mound yesterday.

That might not sound like much. But think again.

"It was definitely a good pick-me-up," said Benson, who is on the disabled list because of a sprained ligament in his right elbow. "Psychologically I'm a lot better than I was last weekend. I'm pretty optimistic now."

Pretty optimistic that he won't need reconstructive surgery on his elbow. That was a concern of his for a while after he was shut down late in spring training because of his elbow trouble.

"I'm doing everything possible to keep from having surgery," said Benson, 10-12 with a 3.85 earned run average last season. "I don't like needles. And I certainly don't want to watch them cut on my elbow. The past few days have been really encouraging. Everybody's feeling a lot better -- me, the coaches, the medical staff."

Right now, "doing everything possible" means following a conservative approach to getting ready to pitch again.

"Rest, treatment and a gradual return to throwing," Pirates trainer Kent Biggerstaff said of the program.

Benson is 10 days into a throwing program that, if all goes well, should have him making a start for the Pirates in about five weeks.

Benson's elbow problem surfaced a few days after he signed a four-year contract worth a guaranteed $13.8 million.

He started against Minnesota in Fort Myers, Fla., March 10 and had a bad outing. At the time, he said he had trouble adjusting to the game mound from the higher bullpen mound.

The next day he said he felt something in his elbow. Gradually, the situation worsened, enough that by March 23 the Pirates announced Benson would stop throwing for a week but did not need surgery.

Benson wanted a second opinion and was examined in Atlanta by Joe Chandler, the Braves' orthopedist.

"He's a close friend, and I thought it was a good idea," Benson said. "This was weighing down on my shoulders."

Chandler's opinion was almost exactly that of Jack Failla, the Pirates' orthopedist who was trying to get Benson ready to pitch opening day, April 3, if possible. Chandler, whose goal wasn't to have Benson ready to pitch April 3, suggested not throwing for 21/2 weeks.

"Both evaluations were about the same," Benson said. "[Chandler] wanted to follow the conservative approach."

So, Benson embarked on a path that would be frustrating because the season was about to start.

"I had good days and bad days," Benson said. "One day, I'd feel great. The next day, I'd feel lousy. Then, I realized that's how it goes. I think now last week was just a case of getting the kinks out [after having not thrown]. There's nothing really structurally wrong with my elbow. It's just a little weak from throwing a lot of innings the last few years.

"One bad day could set me back, but things are really progressing. I felt real good [yesterday]. Nice and smooth. And I was a lot sharper than I thought I would be. I wasn't all over the place with my pitches."

Benson next throws in the bullpen tomorrow -- 35 pitches -- and again on Saturday, when he's scheduled to throw 50 pitches.

"I probably won't be throwing harder than 75 percent until next week," he said.

Benson figures he'll be in "game mode" by May 9 and ready to make the first of at least three rehab starts with a Pirates farm team.

That's the plan. And like all plans, it could go bad even in Benson's last rehab start.

"If the conservative approach fails, then we reconsider," Biggerstaff said. "At that point, we either try the conservative approach again or proceed with [tests] to determine the extent of any tearing [in Benson's ligament] with an eye toward reconstructive surgery."

If Benson's situation reaches that point, it's unlikely he would try the conservative approach a second time. If it didn't work a second time, he'd not only miss this season but next season, too.

Benson, however, remains optimistic he'll pitch for the Pirates this season.

"I wouldn't keep throwing if I thought I needed surgery," he said. "If I'd needed surgery, I would have had it done last week."

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