The day was June 6, 2008. Armando Benitez was pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays, in what ended up being the last Major League uniform he ever donned in his career. On that day, the sometimes Proven Closer encountered a bit of that Orioles Magic in his final MLB appearance. The Blue Jays led the Baltimore Orioles, 4-3 when Benitez came in. Brian Tallet had allowed three runs to score.
Benitez was known for being a closer, having finished 68 games with the New York Mets in 2000, and saving 47 games with the Florida Marlins in 2004—the most in the league that year. But that's not all he was known for. He was also known for heart-attack saves—the kind that have you on the edge of your seat, hoping he'll close the game out. Blue Jays fans likely felt that way when Benitez came in to preserve the lead on that June day eight years ago.
Benitez first entered the big leagues in 1994 at the age of 21. While he only pitched 10 innings in three games, he finished one and started moving into the closer role. In 1997, Benitez converted nine out of 10 save opportunities. He would go on to have convert 83% of his save chances in his career and reached his peak at 93% in 2001 with the New York Mets, turning 43 of 46 save opportunities into saves. And while measuring closers with saves was still all the rage at the time, Benitez was rolling out quality numbers in the ERA- and FIP- departments as well. By the turn of the century, Benitez was certainly one of the game's "Proven Closers."
The decline was rapid, however. His success grabbing saves began to crater after 2004. In 2005, his first year with the San Francisco Giants, he had an 83% SV%, and in 2006 took a turn for the worst, falling to 68% while allowing 57% of inherited runners to score! 2007 was even worse, with a 56% SV% and allowing 50% of inherited runners to score. His ERA was alright in 2006, but otherwise from 2005 to 2007, it wasn't just the "closer" numbers that fell apart. Benitez, once a feared reliever, was no longer getting batters out.
He split 2007 between the Giants and the Marlins, having been traded mid-season. With the team where he recorded 47 saves in one year, he had five save opportunities and blew them all. All of them. He was granted free agency at the end of the year, partly because that's how contracts work, but also because it was the humane thing to do.
By the time 2008 rolled around, Benitez wasn't the closer for the Blue Jays —that was B.J. Ryan. Benitez started the season in the minor leagues, having signed a minor league deal. He was called up to the big league club in May.
It was a 4-0 lead coming into the top of the 8th on June 6. Shaun Marcum gave up a double to begin the inning and was pulled from the game. Tallet came in and allowed Marcum's runner to score. The next batter Tallet faced, Melvin Mora, homered on a 3-1 pitch. The Orioles win expectancy at that point was 26%. Tallet retired Aubrey Huff, then he was taken out of the game.
And so Armando Benitez arrived to preserve the lead. He faced Kevin Millar for his first batter. Ball. Ball. Foul. Ball. In play: run(s). On the 3-1 pitch, Millar launched a fly ball to deep left field that would carry the fence. The lead was gone and Benitez had blown the game.
Luke Scott reached on an error by shortstop David Eckstein. Benitez still hadn't gotten anyone out. Adam Jones got up to bat. Swinging strike. In play: run(s). 6-4 Orioles and Benitez had proven he was no longer a proven closer.
Ten pitches later, Benitez got Ramon Hernandez and Freddie Bynum out to end the inning.
The next day, he was designated for assignment and on Jun. 11, he was released. He signed a few minor league contracts here and there and wound up in some independent league teams, too. But he never made it back to the big leagues.
Whatever it was that brought Benitez glory and saves in the late 1990s was gone and he was left a shell of himself. In 2009 and 2010, Benitez played in AAA and independent leagues. He did not play in 2011 and finished his professional career in 2012, with a season with the Long Island Ducks.
Benitez finished his MLB career with 289 saves, and 59 blown saves. He was worth 17.4 bWAR in the end, with a totally respectable 71 ERA- and 87 FIP- to boot. The total body of work deserves recognition, but it was certainly not always smooth sailing
He will forever be known for the heart-attack-inducing save situations, but the Proven Closer tags comes not from how you close games, but whether you close them at all. He wasn't necessarily the greatest closer, and his decline was sharp, but for a time, he was one of the game's proven.