Benincasa gaining strength and learning during “unbelievable” AFL experience

Right-hander Robert Benincasa had a very successful season in the Nationals organization. He has done so well, his season continues now in the Arizona Fall League.

Benincasa was promoted from low Single-A Hagerstown to high Single-A Potomac. Along the way, he totaled an impressive 27 saves and a 3.00 ERA. He walked only 14 batters and punched out 64 over 51 innings in 45 games.

In Arizona with the Mesa Solar Sox, the 23-year-old Benincasa has gone 0-0 in eight games with a 4.50 ERA. But numbers are not of paramount importance in this type of environment. It is about learning, getting stronger and staying healthy.

The former Florida State product said it was a long season, but the value of getting through the season without a major injury and pitching well was the best reward.

“Being my first year, I knew I couldn’t let my first year kind of slip away and say, ‘Oh, I have next year,’ ” Benincasa said. “I wanted to come out of the gate swinging. I ended up racking up 27 saves. That wasn’t just me. That was my team putting me into those situations.

“It was a great year. Most importantly, it was a healthy year. Being a pitcher, and especially with it being my first full year, I haven’t thrown that many innings since never, really. My first three years at Florida State, I didn’t throw that much. To be able to come out of my first professional year healthy (in) 140 games without going on the DL was really important to me.”

Because that was not the case in 2012 while pitching for short-season Single-A Auburn.

A bothersome knee injury limited him to just 16 games, and he was worried that he might need to have surgery as the inactivity wore on.

“In Auburn, I had bursitis in my knee, similar to what (Bryce) Harper had,” Benincasa said. “They put me on the DL. It was just a bunch of inflammation, something that bothered me in college. One day, it just gave out on me. It swelled up pretty bad. At first the doctor thought it was torn meniscus and the MRI showed it was just bursitis.”

Benincasa took anti-inflammatory medicine along with ice and treatment. He started to feel and see results as the strength returned to his knee.

“I came back from that, my (velocity) started to creep back up getting to where I wanted to get,” he said. “I was a lot stronger, I was able to squat, I was able to workout the right way. Really (went) into the off season healthy, which was great.”

Healthy and reinvigorated, Benincasa started 2013 with Hagerstown. Even with an injury the prior season, Benincasa still knew what it would take to be a closer in pro ball from his experience with the Seminoles.

“My first two years of college, my numbers were subpar,” Benincasa said. “I wasn’t going after guys. I was trying to strike everybody out with the first pitch or two, which is impossible. I was getting myself behind in counts and my numbers were affected by that.

“At the beginning of my junior year, I wasn’t even the closer. They made me the closer after two weeks. And with that role, I kind of saw it as I am only out there really a little amount of time, let’s make it as short as possible.

“Try to get ahead, - strike one is big. The pressure is already on the hitter before the at-bat starts. If you can get ahead 0-1, which should happen most likely, unless they ambush you. If you can get ahead 0-1, it almost doubles that pressure. Hitting is already hard enough, so it makes it a lot harder on them.

“That has kind of been the reason I have been successful. I can get ahead 0-1 with my curveball, my slider or my split (fingered) fastball either side of the plate, righty or lefty.”

Benincasa’s repertoire was pretty basic at Florida State. He had one go-to pitch that was effective to getting batters out. It worked in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but he found out quickly he wouldn’t be able to sustain success with limited pitches in professional baseball.

“When I first came into pro ball, I threw all sliders,” Benincasa said. “At Florida State, we didn’t call pitches, (head coach) Mike Martin called pitches, which was good. I was throwing slider after slider after slider. Obviously, in college the numbers were great because of that. It worked then.

“But when I got to pro ball, all I wanted to do was throw my slider. You throw it too many times, they are going to sit on it. There was a little bit of adjustment period there. So I started kind of altering my slider to make it almost one of them like a curveball and then one like a slider. Really depends if it’s a righty or lefty, depending on the count.”

He said the biggest step in his pitching came when he pitched one summer in the Cape Cod summer league with other talented and well-known hurlers. That is where he added a split-fingered changeup.

“I picked it up going into my junior year playing in the Cape from (pitchers) Mark Appel and A.J. Vanegas, two Stanford guys,” Benincasa recalled. “One showed me the grip and one showed me the process on it. I kind of mastered that. If I didn’t have this pitch, I would struggle to get lefties out. This year, my numbers were actually better against lefties, actually.”

That pitch has been a game changer for him in the pros.

“My split-finger was great for me this year,” Benincasa said. “Learning that split-fingered changeup kind of saved my career. I think it was the reason I was able to excel my junior year. I certainly continued to do that this year.”

Benincasa has also been able to work on another pitch as he gains experience in Arizona. When he got the call in September that he was invited to pitch in the AFL, it was a joyous surprise.

“Unbelievable, unbelievable,” Benincasa said. “(Nationals assistant general manager) Bob Boone and (Nationals director of player development) Doug Harris actually came to town in Potomac, (and) they told all of us pitchers right before we went out to stretch. I was ecstatic. It was hard to kind of hold it in. Being my first year, it wasn’t something I wasn’t really expecting. I am extremely happy and thankful. It couldn’t be any better. The most important thing out here is about learning. Taking this time as a learning process.”

Benincasa was able to get guys out by not throwing strikes while in Hagerstown. In high Single-A and in the AFL, you can’t do that and survive.

“When you keep going up levels, you learn something new at each level,” Benincasa said. “Here, you are not going to be able to miss with those pitches. Even with lefties, you have to have a ball that is going to run away from them.

“I am trying to (refine) my two-seam fastball. I am trying to alter it to get a little more sink on it. You learn something from every level. That is the biggest reason I am so happy to be out here.”

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