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Benson takes a big step forward

Benson takes a big step forward

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CLEARWATER, Fla. -- With each pitch he twirls, regardless of venue, Kris Benson looks more like someone who is going to help the Phillies this season.

Benson hopes it's sooner rather than later.

The right-hander took another large step on Thursday, tossing four innings in a Minor League game at the Carpenter Complex. He allowed two earned runs on four hits and one walk while striking out four. He threw 57 pitches against Toronto's Class A team.

He'll do the same thing on March 18, also likely in a Minor League game, and will shoot for 70 to 75 pitches.

"Everything felt good. I can't complain," Benson said. "It's a big step up from the last time. I used all my pitches. Despite the results, I was pleased with my command. I need to keep building up that pitch count. Hopefully, I'll get 75 the next time out."

Though Benson would like his next outing to come in a Grapefruit League game, pitching coach Rich Dubee all but ruled that out. At this point Dubee prefers the controlled environment of a Minor League game, when innings can end after one out, four outs or whenever the pitcher has reached his pitch count.

"He's got plenty of time," Dubee said. "He has some adrenaline, but he's not maxed out on adrenaline. We don't want to see him in an environment where he goes beyond where he needs to go right now. That's dangerous. He'll show us what he's capable of handling. I don't know if we need to see him in a Grapefruit League game right now."

Dubee, who split his afternoon watching Benson on one field and Cole Hamels on an adjacent field -- the lefty recovered from the flu to pitch five innings and throw 64 pitches -- saw in Benson a pitcher who is gaining arm strength and who has improving control.

Benson topped out at 88 mph, about four mph off his pre-surgery velocity, but averaged 84 to 86.

"He's probably two weeks ahead of schedule as far as being in a game," Dubee said. "We didn't know how quickly we'd be able to get him in a game, but he's come along fine. We're trying to protect against any setbacks."

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A key date for Benson remains March 25, when he can opt out of his contract and become a free agent if he and the Phillies disagree on his progress. Given the steady progression and the thought that he could join the rotation by mid-May or early June, that date could become a non-issue.

"I don't see any reason why I would [opt out]," Benson said. "There's no benefit for me to do it other than if there's a bunch of pitchers that go down [around the league]. If everybody works out great with the guys they have here, the last thing I want to be is an insurance policy. I want to get out there and pitch. At the same time, I need to pace myself."

Assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said that Benson's progression and the opt-out date have nothing to do with each other.

"The deal with his agent had to do with making sure that his progress was significant enough that when the time came to make a decision, we'd be able to make the right decision," Amaro said. "He's done well and seems to be progressing. There's nothing to indicate that he can't help us. We'll continue to monitor his progress."

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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