Working with Cardinals coaches Mark Riggins and Bob Gibson after his promotion from the minor leagues to St. Louis in September 1995, Alan Benes adjusted his approach, mixing off-speed pitches with his fastball, and delivered a double-digit strikeout performance in earning his first win.
On Sept. 30, 1995, Benes, in his third big-league appearance, struck out 10 Pirates in the Cardinals’ 5-1 victory at St. Louis.
Twenty-one years later, Luke Weaver joined Benes and Stu Miller as the only Cardinals pitchers to achieve double-digit strikeouts in one of their first four appearances for St. Louis, according to researcher Tom Orf.
Like Weaver in 2014, Benes was a first-round draft choice of the Cardinals. Benes was selected in the 1993 June amateur draft with the 16th overall pick just after the Blue Jays took pitcher Chris Carpenter with the 15th pick.
Benes produced a 17-3 record and 2.28 ERA in 30 starts in the Cardinals’ minor-league system in 1994. Limited by an injury, he was 4-2 with a 2.41 ERA in 11 starts for Class AAA Louisville in 1995 before his call-up to the Cardinals.
In September 1995, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described Benes as “the most valued prize in the Cardinals’ farm system.”
Benes, 23, made his Cardinals debut on Sept. 19, 1995, in a start against the Pirates at Pittsburgh. He displayed an impressive fastball, but wasn’t effective. His line: 4 innings, 8 hits, 7 runs, 1 walk and 5 strikeouts. The Pirates won, 12-1, and Benes was the losing pitcher.
“He threw a few too many strikes,” Riggins told writer Rick Hummel. “He didn’t make the hitters chase some pitches and he can. That comes with experience.”
Said Benes: “I didn’t really move the ball around as much as I could have. I didn’t throw inside enough. I basically had one pitch.”
Six days later, on Sept. 25, Benes made his second appearance, starting against the Cubs at Chicago, and the results were similar to his first. Benes’ line: 3.1 innings, 9 hits, 7 runs, 1 walk, 5 strikeouts. The Cubs won, 7-0, dropping Benes’ record to 0-2.
“He didn’t get his breaking ball over,” said Cardinals manager Mike Jorgensen. “… He’s throwing hard. It’s a matter of pitching rather than throwing.”
Said Benes: “I’m not happy, but I’m not going to put a lot of stock in it. The first three or four games you’ve got to learn.”
That’s a winner
Benes was a quick study. Riggins, the pitching coach, and Gibson, the bullpen coach and former ace, worked with Benes on pitch selection and command.
In his third Cardinals appearance, on Sept. 30 against the Pirates at St. Louis in the next-to-last game of the season, Benes was dominant.
The 6-foot-5 right-hander shut out the Pirates through eight innings. He entered the ninth with a 5-0 lead.
With two outs and runners on first and third, Midre Cummings hit a double to center off Benes, driving in a run.
Jorgensen was booed when he went to the mound and called for closer Tom Henke to replace Benes. Henke struck out Kevin Young, saving Benes’ first win. Benes’ line: 8.2 innings, 7 hits, 1 run, 2 walks and 10 strikeouts. Boxscore
In his analysis of Benes’ performance, Cardinals catcher Danny Sheaffer said, “He got ahead in the count. No doubt that made a big difference. That and he pitched a little different with the early lead.”
Entering the off-season on a positive, Benes admitted, “This was a real important game for me to win.”
Three months later, the Cardinals signed his older brother, starting pitcher Andy Benes, who had become a free agent after pitching for the Padres and Mariners. In 1996, Andy and Alan Benes combined for 31 regular-season wins, helping the Cardinals to a division championship.