NEW BRITAIN, Conn. – New Britain Rock Cats center fielder Joe Benson is sending an early message that graduation day from Double-A may well be drawing near.
Benson, a good enough football player in high school to get a Big 10 scholarship offer, has all the tools, but some of them were a little raw last year.
Benson showed the Portland Sea Dogs the value of a year’s experience Thursday by ripping two doubles and driving in three runs in leading the Rock Cats to a 6-2 win in their home opener before 6,684 at New Britain Stadium.
The Rock Cats (6-2), atop the Eastern League’s Northern Division after finishing last in 2010, have won five straight.
Benson was the Minnesota Twins’ minor league player of the year last season but high strikeout numbers ushered him back to the Eastern League for a second season. His other numbers are catching scouts’ eyes thus far in 2011 – a .406 batting average, nine RBI and five extra-base hits in eight games.
“He plays above the speed of this level from what we saw tonight,” Portland manager Kevin Boles said. “The two throws he made from center field, he’s got a great arm. He’s a plus runner, plus bat speed with power potential. There’s a lot to like about this kid. He’s a superior athlete and a gamer as well.”
Portland starter Brock Huntzinger retired the first two hitters of the game without incident when his fortune changed with one swing of the bat.
Ray Chang, who spent 2010 with the Sea Dogs, turned on the first pitch and drove it over the left field wall for his first home run of the season. Huntzinger walked Chris Parmelee and Benson drilled a long RBI double to right center giving New Britain an early 2-0 lead.
“As a hitter you only get a few times when you see the ball that well and get to barrel up balls and take advantage of pitches,” said Benson, who spurned a chance to play football at Purdue to sign with the Twins in 2006. “I definitely feel more comfortable back this year. Working at the end of last year I got a lot of my confidence back.”
Portland third baseman Will Middlebrooks (2-for-4) answered with a solo homer off New Britain starter Bobby Lanigan in the second, but Huntzinger’s first-inning struggle was a harbinger of things to come.
In the third inning, the Rock Cats rapped four solid hits and the Sea Dogs (3-4) made two miscues, one physical and one mental. Four runs scored and Huntzinger’s night ended prematurely.
Consecutive doubles by Parmelee and Benson were the key blows. Evan Bigley added an RBI single. Bigley took second on an errant throw by right fielder Chih-Hsuen Chiang and scored when Mark Dolenc tapped a two-out grounder to first and Huntzinger was late covering.
Portland’s bullpen held New Britain without a baserunner the rest of the way. Veteran right-hander Eammon Portice retired all 10 batters he faced. Seth Garrison set down the next six.
“Our bullpen kept us in the ballgame and that’s something that Portice and Garrison have done,” Boles said. “They’ve started out strong and we really like out bullpen. I’m very comfortable with the arms coming out of the pen.”
Lanigan (1-1) allowed just one earned run on five hits and two walks while striking out four in six innings. Cole DeVries earned the save with three innings of one-hit relief.
The teams hook up today at 12:05 p.m. with right-hander Stolmy Pimentel taking the hill for Portland against New Britain right-hander Steve Hirschfeld.