ANCHORAGE -- A year ago, Chad Bentz pitched with his arm. Now he pitches with his head, too.
A year ago, Bentz left the Anchorage Glacier Pilots one discouraged young pitcher. No more. Especially after a five-inning, one-run relief outing last Wednesday against the Oceanside (Calif.) Waves.
A year ago, Bentz thought he was headed to a junior college in Florida. He ended up at a respected four-year program in California.
When it comes to the hard-throwing left-hander from Juneau-Douglas High School, the phrase ``what a difference a year makes'' is an understatement. Bentz, 20, who just ended his freshman year at Long Beach State, has been announced as the Pilots' starting pitcher for the Alaska Baseball League opener Wednesday against the Peninsula Oilers.
``I feel a lot more confident,'' Bentz said.
Oh yeah, and he looks a lot different, too, after one of those bleached-blond dye jobs.
Bentz was a heralded arrival for the Pilots in 1999. For a few reasons. He is an Alaskan. He had mowed down the competition pretty much everywhere he pitched. And like former major-league star Jim Abbott, Bentz was born with only one hand. He went into his windup, threw and shifted his glove from right to left in order to field.
For all of those reasons, Bentz was an inspirational player, a guy fans desperately wanted to see succeed.
Only he didn't.
Just about every outing, Bentz got clocked. He finished the summer with a painful earned run average of 9.50.
Bentz was disturbed by his results, angry about his failures, but determined to improve. Just watch me next year was the parting theme.
He's back, as promised. And it's good news so far.
Last Wednesday, Bentz came into what loomed as a lost cause. Trailing 3-0, he surrendered just one run in his five very solid innings. And it wasn't as if he was lit up, either. One soft hit landed in the infield between first and second and rolled into right field. A bunt factored in, too.
``That's all it was, nickel and dime,'' Pilots pitching coach Lefty Van Brunt said.
Still, Bentz refused to cut himself any slack for the run.
``I walked a guy and that guy scored,'' Bentz said. ``That was my first bunt I messed up all year. I misplaced my feet.''
During the 1999 ABL season, Bentz seemed ticketed for junior college. However, Long Beach State was wooing him and made a firm offer in August. At the last minute, he stayed in the West instead of heading east.
``It was on the table pretty much the whole season,'' Bentz said, ``but I didn't believe it. They said, `OK, we want you.'''
Bentz was eased in at Long Beach, an NCAA Division I program in Southern California, making 11 appearances with an 0-2 record. But the numbers he put up were less important than what he absorbed. He was going to school in more than one way.
``I built my arm strength and changed my leg kick,'' Bentz said. ``They were just fine-tuning me a little bit.''
He worked on improving his curveball and adding a reliable changeup to complement his always-dangerous fastball, too.
``He's got some self-confidence,'' Van Brunt said. ``He's not squeezing the ball. He's got less fingers on it and more movement.''
Nearly as critical as adding pitches to the repertoire for a guy who had been shaken up in the ABL was working with a sports psychologist who taught Bentz how to refocus in the face of adversity - like when a batter crushes a pitch.
``The biggest thing I learned was the mental part of the game,'' Bentz said. ``Where do you go when you get frustrated?''
Meaning where to reach for toughness reserve.
Bentz came across as plenty tough in his Oceanside appearance. He had a strained lower back and had to bend and stretch after nearly every pitch at one point, but he didn't let his concentration waver, and he didn't want to come out, either.
The performance registered with new Pilots manager Bob Miller.
``He did an outstanding job,'' Miller said. ``He threw lots of strikes and ground balls. He could start or relieve. His role has yet to be determined.''
Soon after, Miller tabbed Bentz for Wednesday. It's a start. If he's good enough in that game maybe we can call him Mercedes Bentz.
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