One year away, two shoulder surgeries and countless doubts later, John Van Benschoten is on the verge of making it all the way back.
His phone rang shortly before 3 p.m. yesterday in Durham, N.C., with the news that the Pirates will promote him from Class AAA Indianapolis to take Shawn Chacon's place in the rotation and start tomorrow night against the Chicago White Sox at PNC Park.
And Van Benschoten's first reaction was to call his agent and longtime friend, Joe Bick.
"John says, real low-key, 'Hey, how you doin'?' " Bick recalled. "I said, 'Fine. You?' And he says, 'I'm fine now. I'm going to Pittsburgh.' You could hear how much it meant to him."
Van Benschoten was not available for comment because of Indianapolis' game, but Bick had no difficulty relaying the level of satisfaction accompanying his client's return.
"I've never been happier for any player I've had than I am today," Bick said. "People can't fathom what it's like for an athlete to be out for that period of time, to wonder if you're going to recover, to think, 'Can I ever be what I'm supposed to be?' Don't get me wrong: John still has a lot to prove. But I don't think he'll ever get over a bigger hump than this one."
Van Benschoten, the Pirates' first-round pick in 2001, pitched at the top level briefly in late 2004. But the next few months included reconstructive surgery on each shoulder, and his entire 2005 consisted of long-tossing sessions, setbacks and erratic rehabilitation outings.
Then, suddenly, he was fine entering spring training, and that carried over into a very good showing with Indianapolis: He was 6-4 with a 2.73 ERA in 12 starts, striking out 45 and walking 30.
"Our reports were that John was throwing a lot of very good pitches with good movement," Pirates manager Jim Tracy said.
It was not clear when Van Benschoten will join the team, but Tracy said no move will be made to clear space on the 25-man roster until tomorrow.
Tracy said that bumping Chacon had "everything to do" with getting him back to the bullpen, where he was highly effective before joining the rotation two weeks ago. In four starts, Chacon was 1-1 with a 5.59 ERA. In 16 relief appearances, he had a 3.48 ERA.
Another factor: The bullpen will be without injured Salomon Torres for the foreseeable future and, possibly, Matt Capps for the weekend if his suspension ruling comes down.
"We needed to shore up that area," Tracy said.
Wilson's agent calls GM
Shortstop Jack Wilson, benched for a fourth game in favor of Jose Castillo, had his agent call Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield late Wednesday night, but only for a clarification of his client's status.
At no point did Page Odle, the agent, raise the issue of Wilson being traded.
As Wilson put it yesterday, "Just give me the reasons I'm not playing, so I can adjust."
Wilson was told he needed to upgrade his performance offensively and defensively, and he responded by taking ground balls for 45 minutes and extra batting practice early in the afternoon.
He reiterated he had no intention of making waves.
"It's frustrating, obviously," Wilson said. "I'm a competitor, and it's tough not playing. But you have to have a good attitude. I'm not going to pout."
The Pirates are carrying only four bench players while they await Major League Baseball's inexplicably delayed ruling on Capps' four-game suspension. His appeal was heard Friday, and he was told that day that a ruling would come Monday or Tuesday. Capps' agent, Paul Kinzer, has contacted MLB to inquire about the delay.
Torres left the team yesterday to rehabilitate his inflamed right elbow in Bradenton, Fla. His throwing program will begin next week.
Indianapolis starter Sean Burnett, on the minor-league disabled list because of left elbow irritation, is expected to rejoin the rotation there Monday.
The 20-plus Japanese media covering this series finally had something to write about in the ninth inning last night, when Masumi Kuwata made his Pittsburgh debut in the top half and Texas' Akinori Otsuka pitched the bottom. Each had a 1-2-3 inning.
INDIANAPOLIS (39-26) lost at Durham, 5-0. RHP Marty McLeary (4-2, 3.15) allowed four runs and three hits in 5 1/3 innings. RHP Brian Rogers (2.79) allowed one run and struck out three in two innings of relief. DH Jose Hernandez (.252) had the Indians' only hit in going 1 for 2 with a walk.
ALTOONA (32-30) beat New Britain, 5-2. RHP Kip Bouknight (7-2, 3.27) allowed two runs in eight innings. 3B Neil Walker (.319) went 3 for 4 with a triple, two doubles and an RBI. CF Andrew McCutchen (.235) and 1B Steve Pearce (.303) each went 0 for 4.
LYNCHBURG (29-35) lost at Kinston, 8-3. RHP Serguey Linares (2-3, 4.50) allowed five runs in 4 1/3 innings. LF Jamie Romak (.241) went 2 for 4 with a double and an RBI.
HICKORY (26-38) lost at Asheville, 3-2, in 15 innings. RHP Brad Clapp (3-6, 6.83) allowed two runs in six innings. 2B Jim Negrych (.310) went 3 for 5 with a walk and an RBI.