VIERA, Fla. - He fields a grounder smoothly, transfers the ball to his throwing hand and makes the throw without visible effort.
It's only when you watch more closely that you notice before Chad Bentz of Juneau throws a pitch, he hooks his glove on the vestigial thumb of his partial right hand. As he completes his motion, he slips his left hand into the glove and gets into position to field the ball. After he picks up a grounder he wipes the glove across his chest to remove the ball from the glove, grabs it deftly with his bare left hand and throws.
It is lengthy and complex to explain, quick and simple when the 23-year-old left-hander goes into action. But with a fastball that tops out at 93 mph, and with an improving curveball and change, Bentz had the stuff to make the Expos' 40-man roster this winter, with a shot at earning a spot in the bullpen before the end of this camp.
And the hand might not be the most singular thing about him: Bentz is from Alaska, a state that has developed only one other player to make it to the majors (right-handed pitcher Marshall Boze of Kenai, who spent a year with the Milwaukee Brewers). Bentz, who was born in Seward, also is the sort of straightforward, hard-working young man who seems to impress everyone he meets with his refreshing attitude.
"I'll do anything they want," Bentz said of his attempt to make the Expos' regular-season roster this year. "If they want me to go back down again, I will. If they want me to stay with the club, I will. I'll fill any role they need me to fill. It's possible I could not give up a hit all spring and they would still say I'm not ready and that's fine."
Obviously, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Bentz draws comparisons to Jim Abbott, the lefty starter with an almost identical handicap who had a long major-league career and once pitched a no-hitter for the Yankees. Bentz met Abbott in 1999 while he was at Long Beach State.
"We mostly just shot the bull," Bentz said. "He told me to just keep doing what I do and not change anything."
Double-A field boss Dave Machemer, who managed Bentz in Harrisburg, Pa., last year, is confident the Alaskan will make it to the major leagues.
"He's a competitor," Machemer said. "He started the year as a set-up man and by the end of the season, he was our closer. He wants the ball, and when he gets it, he's a real bulldog on the mound. And he's mentally tough, because of what he's had to go through to get here."
Still, Bentz's teammates notice. They don't make a big deal of it, but the things Bentz can do on a baseball field can be inspirational.
"At the end of the year, he had to field a line drive hit right back at the mound. He caught it, and every guy in the dugout was jumping up and down and yelling," Machemer said.
"He fields his position. Not once all last year did he fail to make a play he should have made. That's because he just works at it so hard."
The bulldog part comes naturally. Until he was 6 years old, Bentz wanted to be a hockey player. But when the family moved from the small Alaska town of Palmer to the state capital in Juneau, there were no hockey programs - so he took up baseball.
He also played football and played it well. A fullback and linebacker at Juneau-Douglas High School, he was recruited to play football at several NCAA Division I schools - including Oregon State, Arizona State and Washington - before deciding to attend Long Beach State on a baseball scholarship. After two years there, he was 21 years old and eligible for the draft; the Expos made him a seventh-round pick and signed him in 2001.
His first two seasons as a pro were nightmarish. Bentz had a nerve problem in his foot, underwent one operation and was able to pitch only 36 innings. The next year, he discovered that doctors who performed the first surgery hadn't removed the nerve as planned and he had to go through a second surgery, which confined him to only 29 innings pitched. The foot healed at last, he began to show what he could do last year in Harrisburg. Now, after only one full season of professional baseball, Bentz has a shot at cracking a major-league roster.
Manager Frank Robinson mentioned Thursday that one thing he will be looking for at this camp is a lefty reliever to replace Scott Stewart in the bullpen. Veteran Joey Eischen has a job; the competition to be the second lefty in the bullpen basically comes down to Bentz and side-armer Randy Choate, 27, who came over from the Yankees in the Javy Vazquez deal along with first-baseman Nick Johnson and outfielder Juan Rivera. Bentz had better numbers than Choate last year, including 16 saves to Choate's one, but Choate was at Triple-A Columbus.
Bentz said he is a terrible hitter, but Harrisburg teammate Josh McKinley insists that isn't so: Bentz hit 23 home runs in high school and he has hit batting-practice pitches out of the park in Double-A. He hits from the right side, propping the bat on his right hand and holding it with his left, then following through with his left hand only.
Bentz insists the only sense in which he is exceptional is his willingness to meet with people, especially youngsters facing similar impediments.
"I meet with everyone who contacts me. Other than that, I'm just another left-hander."
This story originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on Feb. 22
and special permission was granted to reprint it in the Juneau Empire.
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