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April 5, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – It’s the ninth inning and the game is on the line, with your team up by one run.
You come in from the bullpen and take your place on the mound. If it’s a home game, you can hear the crowd buzz in anticipation. If it’s a road game, the noise is louder as the fans try to ignite a rally. You take your warmup pitches and wait for the first batter to step into the box.
And now the fun begins, especially if you’re Robert Benincasa of Florida State.
Not every pitcher is cut out for this situation but Benincasa, in his first season as closer for the Seminoles, has thrived on it. The junior right-hander has appeared in 14 games and recorded nine saves in nine opportunities. He has surrendered only one run – it was unearned – while holding opposing hitters to a .125 average.
“Even that first time out I could tell from the reaction of the crowd and from the facial expressions of the players how tense everybody is,” he said. “To me, I kind of looked at everything and I said ‘this is fun.’ It made me smile.
“I think that’s why I’m doing so well. I go out there and I think this is fun. That’s what every situation I’ve been in so far has been to me.”
Benincasa has helped the Seminoles compile a 24-5 record, including 11-1 in the ACC, and rise to No. 2 in the national rankings. They have surpassed most preseason expectations to this point. This weekend they face a tough three-game road test at Georgia Tech.
When the season began, one of the biggest questions about the Seminoles was who would close games.
“He had the stuff to make a closer,” said pitching coach Mike Bell. “He had the 88 to 92 fastball, the power breaking ball, he could throw a split-change for a strike. This year, the maturity and confidence that he was able to build through experiences over the first two years have helped to make him into who he is right now.”
As a freshman Benincasa appeared in 13 games, starting four, with a 2-0 record and 5.32 ERA. In his sophomore year he was used in 20 games, starting three, with a 2-2 mark and a 3.58 ERA.
The Seminoles were still undecided about their closer when this season began, and Benincasa was one of many arms in the bullpen. But after he made an impressive two-inning showing against Jacksonville, the coaches told him he would fill the closer’s role. And in a series against an excellent Florida International team, he validated their selection.
After FIU won game one, the Seminoles bounced back and took a 3-1 lead in the second game. Benincasa closed it out, allowing a hit and getting a strikeout, for his first career save. The next day he came in with a 2-1 lead and nailed down that one, too.
“The confidence hit us based on his first couple outings,” Bell said, “and it has run from there. He earned it by the way he performed and we’ve been able to stick with him because of the way he has handled it.”
Benincasa simply hasn’t felt the pressure many folks might expect. The toughest situation, he said, came against Jacksonville, when the Seminoles were clinging to a 9-8 lead in the sixth inning. When Jacksonville got its first two runners on base, Benincasa got the call.
“That, to me, was the most pressure,” he said. “Jacksonville is a good team and I didn’t want to let them back in the game and I ended up striking the three guys out that I faced. I think that’s what brought me into the closer role, where coach (Mike) Martin saw I could come into a situation like that and execute pitches and get outs.”
Bell said the ingredients for a good closer are the ability to put batters away, especially with a strikeout if needed; durability to be able to close back-to-back games; and a short-term memory with the understanding that the previous game, successful or not, is gone and each game is a new challenge.
As for his repertoire, Bell said Benincasa has two-seam and four-seam fastball, a hard slider and a changeup. His success stems from the ability to throw any of them in any count, to right-handed hitters and to lefties, so batters are never sure what’s coming. Pinpoint control also helps – just two walks against 26 strikeouts in 16 2/3 innings.
“My first two years I had problems walking people (30 walks against 40 strikeouts),” Benincasa said. “I threw my fastball and my slider mostly because I didn’t have a changeup. In this program we like to throw a lot of changeups and it’s kind of a must-have pitch to be successful. And it’s almost a must-have pitch to be successful in the ACC.”
So he developed the changeup to supplement his other two pitches. He considers the slider his best pitch and throws two versions of it, one at 78-80 with really good tilt and break, and a harder one at 82-83 that looks much more like a fastball coming out of his hand but often bites in the dirt as a batter is swinging.
Now that he has settled into his role, Benincasa has developed a routine. He watches the first six innings of a game from the dugout, mainly to see how the hitters have adjusted to the pregame scouting report. He calms himself through the first few innings, then turns introspective around the fourth and fifth.
He walks to the bullpen after the bottom of the sixth if the Seminoles are at home and the top of the seventh if they’re on the road, making mental preparation. Bell visits before he enters the game to go over the hitters coming up and to see how he wants to pitch to them.
“When I’m in the bullpen throwing I’m thinking of the guys I’m going to face,” Benincasa said, “and when I’m walking out to the mound it all kind of slowly winds down.
“In that situation you can’t mess up. You almost have to be perfect, especially in a one-run ball game against a good team like the kind we play in the ACC. I think about executing one pitch at a time.”
It’s a routine that has worked to perfection so far. Can it continue?
“Nobody is ever going to be perfect in the game of baseball,” Bell said. “When things bounce the wrong way or don’t end up the way he wants – it’s coming, we all know that.
“But he’s handled it so far as far as the mental preparation, the confidence that he puts into our team when he comes into a game but also our team has put into him, too. They have really fed off of each other so far.”
Benincasa said he doesn’t think about things going wrong because he doesn’t want to have those thoughts when he goes into a game. In his first two seasons, he let things bother him and they carried over. Now, if he has what he considers a bad outing, he listens to Bell’s assessment, makes the adjustment and moves on.
His business-like approach – appropriate for someone majoring in finance – has worked well. And Benincasa is not preoccupied about whether Florida State ascends to the No. 1 ranking. He likes the powerful lineup and the arms on the pitching staff.
“If our starters can keep us in the game, it’s in the bullpen’s hands,” he said, “and at the end of the game it’s in my hands to preserve that.”
And the end of the game is the most fun of all.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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