Bennett adds chapter to dream story
Right-hander strikes out eight as Braves beat Brewers
ATLANTA -- Every time it seems like Jeff Bennett's storybook month has to be coming to an end, it simply gets better. In fact, that thrill he experienced while winning an International League championship last weekend now stands as just another portion of a journey that has allowed him to realize his childhood dream.
That dream that began back during his youthful days in Nashville was realized in dramatic fashion at Turner Field on Thursday night. Making it back to the Major Leagues was always Bennett's goal. Doing so with the Braves was a fantasy that was blurred while he missed all of last season recovering from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery.
But as Bennett proved while helping the Braves enhance their postseason hopes with a 3-1 win over the Brewers at Turner Field on Thursday night, he loves a challenge and is more than willing to defy the odds.
"I was very, very impressed tonight," Braves catcher Brian McCann said after watching Bennett allow just one earned run and six hits during the 5 2/3 innings that encompassed his first Major League start.
It had been three years since Bennett was in the big leagues and approximately a month since he became a regular in Triple-A Richmond's starting rotation. But while registering eight strikeouts and solving Milwaukee's potent lineup, the 27-year-old right-hander showed a sense of poise the Braves haven't seen from many of the other hurlers they'd previously hoped would add stability to the back end of their rotation.
"It's a great feeling to start," Bennett said. "I've never had a start in the big leagues. I didn't really know how it was going to feel. But it felt great."
As a confident Bennett addressed the media, many of his Braves teammates roared as the Marlins made their ninth-inning comeback in a game they eventually won in 10 innings over the slumping Mets, who have won just one of their past seven games.
Having won six of their past seven, the Braves, who have matched a season-best five-game winning streak, are just 4 1/2 games behind the front-running Mets in the National League East race.
"We're going to play it out all the way and hopefully get some help," said McCann, who aided Bennett with a generous first-inning RBI single. "We'll see what happens."
When Brewers right fielder Joe Dillon fell while attempting to snare McCann's two-out fly to shallow right field, it was obvious good fortune still was on the side of the Braves, who were led once again by Chipper Jones. His three-hit performance allowed him to assume the lead in the NL batting title race with a .342 average.
"Chip may be having one of his finest [seasons] ever," said Braves manager Bobby Cox of his veteran third baseman, who sparked the first inning with a two-out single off Brewers starter Jeff Suppan.
With two outs in the second inning, Jones victimized Suppan with a two-out, two-run single that proved decisive and allowed Bennett to enjoy this impressive debut with a little more comfort.
Before throwing his first pitch of the evening, Bennett took a deep breath and reminded himself that he'd made 60 relief appearances for this same Brewers organization back in 2004. It didn't matter that he'd made just nine starts, including three in the postseason, for Richmond this year. Bennett convinced himself he belonged, and then he spent the next couple hours proving it.
"Sometimes in the big leagues, you overanalyze things and put people on a pedestal," Bennett said. "I really stepped back and thought [about how] I was playing with these guys two years ago. It really puts things in perspective. They're everyday guys."
With his parents, grandfather, wife and two daughters in attendance, Bennett successfully navigated his greatest challenge after the Brewers put runners at first and second with just one out in the first inning. He responded with consecutive strikeouts of Prince Fielder and Corey Hart.
"He wanted the ball," McCann said. "It's just his mentality. He knows he has the stuff to pitch here and stay here."
When the Brewers put runners at the corners with one out in the sixth inning, Cox called upon Manny Acosta and allowed Bennett to exit to a standing ovation from a crowd that obviously was thrilled to see a third straight strong performance from somebody not named Tim Hudson or John Smoltz.
"It's exciting," Bennett said of the ovation. "You're pitching in Triple-A with two or five thousand people in the stands. You come here, and it's pretty impressive."
Bennett's successful outing followed the ones produced by Jo-Jo Reyes and Chuck James. Had the Braves received this kind of consistency at the back end of their rotation all year, they wouldn't be in their current situation.
But with one week and hope still remaining, Bennett was just happy to have made such a contribution to the organization he used to watch compete in the postseason on an annual basis.
"It's awesome," Bennett said. "It's a great feeling to be on this team, and we still have a chance to make the playoffs and that's real important."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.