Chad Bentz was a little nervous when he got to the Montreal Expos' spring training camp Saturday morning.
The left-handed relief pitcher from Juneau was on the bubble and didn't know if he'd be able to stay with the Expos. It was cutdown day, the Expos had to trim their roster to 25 players, and they still had 35 on the board.
Bentz, who used to play for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots of the Alaska Baseball League, was told to go pitch an inning in a minor league game for the Harrisburg Senators, the Expos' Class AA affiliate. After throwing a scoreless inning striking out two batters and picking off the one hitter he walked Bentz returned to the Expos' camp and was met by manager Frank Robinson.
"I was wondering, 'Am I cut?' But Frank Robinson pulled me aside and said, 'Congratulations, you're a big leaguer,'" Bentz said by phone Saturday afternoon from Viera, Fla. "I told him thank you for the opportunity, and he said, 'You earned it.' I told him I'd bust my butt for him and the team every day to help it win."
With that, Bentz became the second player to have played either high school or American Legion baseball in Alaska to make the major leagues. Marshall Boze, a right-handed pitcher from Kenai, was the first when he played in 25 games for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1996.
"It's great, I'm very thankful," said Bentz, who called his parents in Juneau at 6:30 a.m. to let them know he'd made the cut. "I'm excited to play against the best guys in baseball. We'll go play the defending world champions (the Florida Marlins) on Tuesday, and then we'll go to Puerto Rico and face the (New York) Mets (on Saturday). I'll get to play against the cream of the crop."
Bentz did not see action in Montreal's 4-3 loss to the Marlins on Tuesday, but that didn't dampen Juneau's enthusiasm for the hometown success story.
"That is terrific. It's tremendous. No kid deserves it more," said Juneau-Douglas High School baseball coach Jim Ayers, who took over the team the year after Bentz graduated. "Chad's always been helping the younger guys, that was his thing. The last two or three years he came over and ran a camp with us, and he's come to our practices when he was in town."
Bentz, a 1999 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate, has been on the ride of his life this spring.
He married Christie Renfrow on Jan. 29, then headed to Florida for his first major league spring training camp a few days later. Bentz's two previous spring training camps were spent with the minor leaguers.
After a slow start, Bentz settled down and has been effective with a 2.92 ERA and no decisions in 12 1/3 innings over a team-high 11 appearances.
"I was just trying to make the perfect pitch, I was trying to keep from making mistakes," said Bentz, who has allowed just one run over his last seven appearances. "I went into the fourth outing with the idea that I have to trust my stuff. I need to attack and pitch the way I did to get this opportunity. It was a good turnaround."
When he got to camp, Bentz, who had never played above the AA minor league level, was one of three lefties trying to earn spots in Montreal's bullpen. Joey Eischen, who pitched for the Expos last year, was the favorite, but he had surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow in mid-March and will miss the first few weeks of the season.
That left Bentz and Randy Choate, who came to the Expos in a trade with the New York Yankees, as the only lefties. Last week, Choate was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks, leaving Bentz the only healthy lefty in the bullpen.
"Eischen went down with his surgery, and I just hope he has the best rehab and can hurry up and get back to the team," Bentz said. "But when he went down, I was thinking I might have a shot, but I was still not confident at all. When Choate got traded, I thought they might go with me, or they could go with no lefties in the bullpen. Even this morning I didn't know if I was going to make it."
For a relatively unknown rookie trying to make his first major league roster, Bentz has drawn more than the usual amount of media attention. Bentz was born with a deformed right hand, what he calls his "birthmark," and pitches and catches with his left hand, switching his glove between hands like former major leaguer Jim Abbott.
"It's all the same interviews, but I don't mind doing them," said Bentz, who won the team's community service award and best pitcher awards last year for the Harrisburg Senators.
Despite the handicap, Bentz has been pegged as a future major leaguer since he was a young pitcher in Little League.
After watching Bentz hit the first home run out of Melvin Park in May 1993, Juneau Empire columnist Lee Stoops wrote, "While we might never see an Alaskan wear a major league uniform, there are hundreds of local boys who dream of being the first. Chad Bentz stands tall among them. His every move and instinct reflect that 'something special.' He's a natural, pure and simple."
"I don't remember what was said in detail, just that it said one day I might be able to pitch in the major leagues," Bentz said when reminded of the column. "I think it reflects the reality that a kid who has ability, has heart and is willing to work can make it," Ayers said. "Ability, heart and hard work, that's what it takes."
While his stay in the major leagues might be temporary filling time until Eischen is healthy Bentz said he's not worried about getting sent down to the Class AAA Edmonton Trappers. Bentz told Florida Today reporter Scott Brown on Saturday, "If they want me to stand on my head and do somersaults, I'll do it if it will help the team out."
"I'm just thankful for the opportunity," Bentz said. "I'm not going to worry about it (being sent down to the minors). I'm just going to try and get better, there's no point in worrying. ... Anything else is out of my control. It's going to be a great run."
Charles Bingham can be reached at charles.bingham@ juneauempire.com.
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