On Sunday, Benson took another step toward recovery from March 2007 surgery and another step toward being able to help a Phillies pitching staff that may need it soon.
The 33-year-old right-hander made his third Minor League start of 2008 and his first for Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Sunday's outing unfolded in a manner similar to his first two Minor League starts for Class A Clearwater -- Benson surrendered a lead and ultimately left the game with his team trailing.
Benson was credited with the loss in Lehigh Valley's 6-3 loss to Syracuse on Sunday. He is now 0-3 with an 8.44 ERA in his three Minor League starts as he attempts to return to the Majors for the first time since 2006. Benson joined the Phillies as a Minor League free agent in February.
He had been scheduled to throw five innings or 80 pitches, but was lifted after his four innings in which he yielded four earned runs on five hits. He threw 73 pitches, 49 for strikes.
"I just got beat by guys that executed when they needed to execute," Benson said. "I gave up some hits that I felt were on good pitches and a couple doubles that I missed the locations on."
Despite his struggles, Benson said that he felt good and showed signs that his rehabilitation from surgery on his right rotator cuff and right elbow is progressing. He eclipsed the 90-mph threshold in each of his four innings, topping out at 93 mph in the third. Phillies assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said last week that Benson's fastball had been consistently clocked at 88-89 mph in his first two Minor League starts.
Benson said that he entered his Lehigh Valley stint thinking he'd need at least two starts here before being ready to return to the Majors, but maintained that there was no firm timetable. He said he expects to pitch for the IronPigs again on Friday, when they play on the road against the Pawtucket Red Sox.
"This is my third start, per se, in a real competitive atmosphere, and I can't be more pleased with where I'm at," Benson said. "Considering it's been since September '06 before I did that, I'm feeling pretty confident."
Benson was selected by the Pirates as the first overall pick in the 1996 First-Year Player Draft. He began the 2001 season on the Pirates' disabled list and ultimately missed the entire season, undergoing reconstructive surgery on his right elbow in May.
He also spent time on the disabled list with the Mets in 2005 with a strained right pectoral muscle. During his latest comeback effort, Benson has faced several hurdles. Biceps tendinitis slowed him in Spring Training and he strained his right groin in April. On June 2, he was scratched from a start for Clearwater after feeling tightness and soreness in his right biceps.
The Phillies will likely be keeping a close eye on Benson's progress as he prepares for his second start with Lehigh Valley. Brett Myers' recent struggles have led manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee to acknowledge that the right-hander may not make his next start, scheduled for Thursday in Atlanta.
If Myers is moved to the bullpen, Benson could become one of the Phillies' options for the rotation. The team may also look to 25-year-old left-hander J.A. Happ, who is 5-6 with a 3.54 ERA in 17 starts for Lehigh Valley this year. Happ made one start for the Phils last season and allowed five runs in four innings.
"I feel more confident," Happ said Sunday. "I feel confident in the pitches I'm going to throw and [my ability] to execute them."
Though Benson has been watching the Phillies through their surges and recent struggles, his focus remains on his own readiness.
"It's just something that I really can't control," Benson said when asked about the Phils' rotation conundrum. "I need to concentrate on getting me right and getting me ready. When they come knocking, I need to be ready."