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HOUSTON (CBS-Houston) – Your highly anticipated moment to shine may not come when you want it. But most times, if one diligently prepares and is patient, even when curve balls are thrown your way, those opportunities will present themselves. Such was the case for one specific Rice pitcher as his Owls would decisively beat New Mexico State 12-4 on Wednesday night behind a brilliant pitching performance.
The Owls had their way at the plate as they put up a whopping 18 hits. Sophomore Shane Hoelscher and freshman Christian Stringer led the way with 4 apiece. Wednesday night starter and redshirt junior Andrew Benak says he had all the run support a pitcher could want.
“It makes it a little easier when your team is getting about 10 hits an inning. So, it seemed like we were getting runs every inning and I mean it kind of took some of the pressure off me. I settled into a groove and kind of stayed there all game.”
The Owls did put their stamp on the ball as they served up 14 hits through the first 4 innings and led 8-0 going into the 5th inning.
“You know your team is always going to be behind you. You know they’re going to put up the runs. So, if you can just hold the team in the other dugout to a few, then you always have a chance of winning.”
ANDREW’S FINEST HOUR
Speaking of chances, Benak finally got his and made the most of it. He was an unlikely starter. If you look at the numbers, you have to wonder why the 6’5” 225 pound redshirt junior would get a shot after only starting a total of 4 games in three years. His ERA over the 3-year span before Wednesday night’s start was 6.69. It was 27.00 in 2010.
But as the game unfolded on Wednesday night, one could begin to understand the method to the madness. Rice Head Coach Wayne Graham had called it correctly once again; the baseball genius at work.
Benak, the big right-hander from Langham Creek, struck out a career high 10 in 5.1 innings. He didn’t allow a walk in only his 5th career start and only permitted two singles in the best performance of his college career.
“It’s a really great feeling – all glory to God! It’s unbelievable,” says Benak. I couldn’t have imagined that that was going to happen. But, (catcher) Craig Manuel called a great game behind the plate and our defense played great behind me.”
“We threw a lot of sliders early in the game and pitched off the fastball once we got the lead,” says Benak.
He hit the 90’s with his fastball which is an excellent indication that he’s finally healthy after several surgeries over the past few years. Patience from the Rice coaching staff, plenty of hard work, and dedication to team, allowed Benak to prove Coach Graham’s belief in him to this point.
“The coaches here have been tremendous in allowing me to push through these injuries and really helped me out in terms of – they’ve never really given up and they’ve always given me an opportunity even sometimes probably when I didn’t deserve it.”
ELBOW PAIN WAS THE CULPRIT
Benak underwent Tommy John surgery in September of his senior year at Langham Creek shortly after committing to Rice. He would return to baseball after the healing process. However, his career as a high school pitcher was over as he was moved to first base and wouldn’t get back on the mound until his freshman season on South Main.
He appeared in 15 games with 3 starts in 2009. Benak pitched a total of 23.2 innings but began to have problems with that same right elbow. He would need surgery in 2010 to have bone spurs removed – again – which restricted the extension and flexibility of his arm. Once that surgery was completed and pain temporarily subsided, Benak began looking forward to a productive junior campaign. But, unfortunately, the pain reoccurred once again.
Following last season’s Houston Regional, Benak visited with a different specialist who performed another surgery. Initially, only two bones spurs had been removed. During the last surgery, four were removed. But the size is what’s unbelievable.
“There’s a couple of bone spurs they measured when they laid next to each that were 5 centimeters in length,” says Benak. “There’s four of them, I believe, and when you put them all next to each other on a ruler they equate to 5 centimeters.”
That’s about the length of a normal man’s thumb – restricting the elbow. That’s pain for an average human being who doesn’t participate in sports. For people like Benak or any athlete who needs extension and flexibility of the elbow, being improperly diagnosed could lead to many recurring problems or the end of a career. However, giving up was never the case for Benak, thanks to Graham.
“Coming off these surgeries and coming off anytime I had kind of a bad appearance or anything, he’s given me another opportunity or he’s given me a chance to, you know, kind of redeem myself. Up until this year I haven’t been able to do that. So, I hope this year continues the way it started. It’s still pretty early. But, we’ll see what happens.”
SO MANY OPTIONS
Now that Benak has a gem of a start under his belt, Head Coach Wayne Graham has a starter that few knew about before Wednesday night. Adding Benak will do nothing but bolster an already potent pitching rotation. Benak only needs 12 hours to graduate and has chosen Sports Management as a major, Business as a minor.
He arrived on campus with the likes of Taylor Wall, Matthew Reckling, Jeremy Rathjen, and Anthony Fasio. In fact, Benak has either played with or against Wall and Rathjen since age 11. Adding more suspense to this story thus far is Benak’s group is the first not to have yet competed at Omaha since the Owls won the 2003 College World Series. He realizes the time is now.
“We understand the pressure and we put that pressure on ourselves. We think it’s a healthy type of pressure in terms of – we really enjoy playing with each other. We really enjoy coming out here and taking the competition to heart and doing everything we can. Like I said, we look forward to having a chance to go to Omaha this year and we hope to accomplish that goal.”
GOALS ARE CLEAR NOW
Speaking of goals, playing baseball at Rice was one of them. Having childhood friends on the team just makes the experience more enjoyable. But what added to Benak’s desire was the trail blazed by a very close family member.
“For me, I always wanted to come to Rice,” says Benak. “My grandfather, (Jerry Sims – 1956-58 – 3-year lttr), played baseball here. I grew up watching Rice baseball and for me this was always the place that I wanted to go.”
Of course, having a chance to win a championship with friends wouldn’t hurt.
“Obviously, they were some of the top players in the state and obviously with Rice, being one of the better schools academically and baseball wise, it seemed like a pretty easy decision for them. I know they had some other offers. But, I think they made the right choice and hopefully we’ll secure a spot in the (College) World Series this year.”
The season continues Friday night as the nation’s 5th ranked Owls host Dallas Baptist in a three-game series at Reckling Park beginning at 6:30.