NEWARK, NJ— Armando Benitez blew a comfortable lead during a showcase game.
Sound familiar? Benitez wasn’t even wearing a Mets uniform this time. Instead, the Newark Bears closer failed to hold a two-run ninth inning lead in the Atlantic League’s All-Star game Tuesday night, giving up four runs on five hits as the Liberty Division stormed back for a 7-5 victory.
Southern Maryland’s Mike Just tied the contest by working the count full against the former two-time major league All-Star. With one out and runners on second and third, Just blasted a two-run single up the middle to tie it at 5.
Bridgeport’s Luis Lopez ripped a RBI single down the leftfield line to plate Just with the game-winning run, tagging Benitez and the Freedom Division with the loss.
“Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose,” an upbeat Benitez said in the home clubhouse afterwards. “I felt like I wasn’t 100 percent until the last couple of batters.”
Benitez, who has taken over as Newark’s closer from former Red Sox Keith Foulke, said he wanted to win the exhibition but still was appreciative of the opportunity. The 36-year-old is a two-time major league All-Star but said earning the respect of fellow players, coaches and fans is important to him.
“You make the All-Star game because people picked you. You did something special,” Benitez said. “It’s a good opportunity to come back. It’s not the big leagues but to be in a situation here, it’s very nice. It’s cool for me and I take pride in being in the All-Star game.”
Just was the only Liberty starter to play the entire game, going 2-5 with two RBIs and two runs scored to earn MVP honors. Ducks closer Bill Simas entered in the eighth inning with the Liberty Division trailing by a run. Since the Liberty squad was the visitor, manager Butch Hobson wanted to ensure Simas got to pitch in front of the 20 scouts in attendance at Bears and Eagles Riverfront Stadium.
The move left the Liberty squad with no more pitchers and Simas had to come out in the ninth for a five-out appearance. Yet Simas thrived on the workload, tossing a 1-2-3 ninth to close out the win.
“For us to come back like that, it’s a pretty big win,” Valentine said. “Even though it’s an exhibition, we’re here to win. Anytime you’re an All-Star, it’s an honor, wherever you are. And the talent that’s in this league; it’s pretty nice.”
The Freedom Division jumped out to a 3-0 lead after two innings, scoring once in the first before Lancaster’s Lloyd Turner blasted a two-run double down the leftfield line. Turner was in line for the MVP award if the Freedom team could have protected the lead.
Unlike last year’s All-Star game in Somerset, there was no pregame home run derby. Ray Navarrete represented the Ducks in the contest last year but still got to swing for the fences, knocking a two-run home run to left in the top of the third to put the Liberty Division on the scoreboard and cut the deficit to 3-2.
“Anytime there’s a home run derby, I always think it makes the All-Star game more fun,” Navarrete said. “Either way, I’m having a good time.”
The Liberty Division plated a run in the seventh before the Freedom squad picked up an insurance run charged to Ducks set-up man Joe Valentine in the eighth. Even the extra run couldn’t help Benitez, who started the ninth by allowing a weak infield single before Camden’s Jason Jacobs lined a single to right.
A pop out and a passed ball put two runners in scoring position for Just, who delivered his clutch hit. Just stole second in front of Lopez’s single and Camden’s Jon Knott brought Lopez home on a RBI double to left-center.
Atlantic League rules state
that an extra-inning game would be decided by a homer-off, which would be baseball’s version of the NHL’s shootout where the game would be decided by a home run derby.
Freedom manager Chris Hoiles (York’s manager) said that scenario allowed him to use all his pitchers and save Benitez for the end, where it was his job to finish the inning without needing to worry about arms for extra-innings.
“I figured with what we have, Benitez is our closer and that was the best option I had,” Hoiles said.