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Benson ready for first start since 2000

PITTSBURGH (ESPN.com news services) -- Kris Benson has waited 19 months and two
spring trainings, through a 100-loss season and a seemingly endless
recovery from reconstructive elbow surgery, to pitch again for the
Pittsburgh Pirates.

Tonight, Benson makes his first major league appearance since September 2000 when he faces Curt Schilling in the opener of a three-game series between the
Pittsburgh Pirates and Arizona Diamondbacks at PNC Park.

Benson was activated from the disabled list Sunday. He
missed the entire 2001 season after undergoing reconstructive
surgery on his pitching elbow.

Benson was cleared to return Friday after sailing through five
successful minor league rehabilitation starts, striking out 32 and
allowing only four earned runs in 24 2/3 innings. His only setback
was a 17-day layoff last month for tendinitis that wasn't related
to his elbow surgery last May.

"My arm feels good and seems to be getting better and better
with every start once we got the tendinitis out," Benson said
Friday. "I'm definitely ready to go. But I'm going to be a little
nervous early -- it's almost like a brand new (minor league) callup
for me."

Benson is 21-26 with a 3.95 ERA in 63 career games with the
Pirates. He is 1-1 with a 3.77 ERA in two starts against
Arizona.

The Pirates have awaited the right-hander's return almost as
much as Benson himself has. After starting the season 12-5, they
lost 11 of 15 amid spotty starting pitching and the NL's weakest offense before taking two of three from Houston in a weekend series.

Ron Villone, the Pirates' Opening Day starter April 1 in New York,
goes to the bullpen after averaging just over five innings in seven
starts, with a 2-4 record and a 6.81 ERA.

"I talked to Ron and he wants to be in the rotation, but he's a
team player," Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon said.

Once Benson is back in the rotation, McClendon will try to find
extra days off for him even as the Pirates go through a stretch
that finds them playing 27 games in 27 days through June 5.

"Kris Benson has a chance to be a special pitcher," McClendon
said of the No. 1 overall pick in the June 1996 draft. "Safe to
say, we're going to be very cautious with him."

Benson opposes the major league-leader in victories in Schilling
(7-1, 3.20 ERA), who has won each of his last four starts,
allowing 10 runs and 21 hits while striking out 46 in 30
innings. He defeated the Pirates on Wednesday, when he allowed
three runs and struck out nine in eight innings.

The veteran right-hander improved to 12-6 with a 2.96 ERA in 23
career appearances against Pittsburgh.

Arizona opened a six-game road trip by losing two of three games
in Philadelphia over the weekend. The Diamondbacks scored just
one run in their two losses and suffered a 3-1 setback in
Sunday's series finale.