HOUSTON — RHP Joaquin Benoit admitted he had his doubts he'd make it back here.
Benoit, 32, who spent parts of eight years with the Rangers, missed all of 2009 after surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. The hard-thrower who was among the American League's best relievers three years ago joined the Rays on a minor-league deal in spring training hoping to prove himself again.
And so far, it couldn't have worked out better.
Benoit has pitched seven straight scoreless outings, striking out the last six batters he has faced while holding opponents to a .091 average. Pitching coach Jim Hickey said Benoit has hit 97 mph with his fastball and has what manager Joe Maddon calls an "elite changeup."
"I think he looks a lot like he did in Texas," Maddon said. "If he gets ahead of hitters with his fastball, that (changeup) becomes devastating.
"If he keeps throwing like that, there's no telling what he's going to do this year."
While Benoit said he still hasn't developed a feel for his slider, his fastball command has improved dramatically since spring training. His body has held up to where he can pitch on consecutive days, though Maddon said he'll be careful with him. "He's a nice toy," he said. "I don't want to mess with it."
Benoit says he's a more mature pitcher, not worrying about what is going to happen tomorrow or next week; just staying in the moment.
Now that Benoit is back in the big leagues, he wants to take advantage of the opportunity. And the Rays, without key lefty reliever J.P. Howell for the season, will need him, potentially against left-handed hitters, whom Benoit has held to a .167 average (2-for-12).
"You have to catch a break if you're going to be good, and I think that could be one of those good breaks that we catch," Hickey said, "like (Grant) Balfour in (2008) or J.P. Howell. And if he can sustain this, oh, my Lord."
IN DEFENSE: Though rookie C John Jaso has made quite the impression offensively (hitting .339 with a .466 on-base percentage), he said his biggest improvment has been game-planning and working with pitchers.
Maddon said he can see Jaso earning the pitchers' trust by making key blocks, like he did Friday. Whether Jaso stays when C Kelly Shoppach (sprained right knee) comes off the disabled list remains to be seen. But he's catching people's attention.
"He's been big," RHP Matt Garza said. "Two years ago, you're like, 'Oh, man.' Now it doesn't matter who we run out there behind the plate. I'd hate to be (Rays management) right now. He's playing his butt off. He's hitting and doing everything right. When he's not playing, he's working and trying to get better. And that's what it's all about."
IN THE SWING: Ben Zobrist said he was glad to get his first homer — Thursday in New York — out of the way. More important, he's feeling good at the plate. He went 3-for-5 Friday and is on a 9-for-13 tear with three walks and a sacrifice fly.
"Right now, my hands are getting going better," Zobrist said. "My timing seems to be there, so I feel much better."
FAMILIAR PLACE: RHP Jeff Niemann, a Houston native, will start tonight in front of 30 to 40 friends and family members. He has pitched at Minute Maid Park before, going 2-1 in three starts for Rice in the annual Minute Maid College Classic.
"Great place, great mound," he said. "Looking forward to it."
MISCELLANY: Shoppach could be ready for a rehab assignment by the time of the Rays' next road trip (June 1-6). … CF B.J. Upton was given most of the day off with Sean Rodriguez starting in center. Upton entered in the eighth after Willy Aybar pinch-hit for Rodriguez.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]