SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -Armando Benitez strolled through the clubhouse one day last week with humongous headphones over his ears and wearing the shiny black workout shirt he credits for helping him burn fat fast.
As in 25 pounds since the start of spring training.
The next day, he bounced around the room grinning as he ordered teammates to pay their fines into a cardboard box where he stores the cash for safekeeping.
Gone are the signs of anxiety surrounding San Francisco's closer, and the days when he got booed in his own ballpark almost from the moment he began warming up in the bullpen - then even nastier chants once he headed to the mound.
Gone are the extra pounds he carried on his 6-foot-4 frame, and gone are the aches in his arthritic knees and tender hamstrings that made it difficult to do the workouts necessary to improve his fitness level. His right knee was so bad last year he could barely put pressure on it.
``It's not easy to be on the mound on only one leg,'' said Benitez, who missed 96 games in 2005 in his first season with the Giants following surgery to reattach two torn hamstring tendons to the pelvis. ``I know I can pitch. Right now I'm happy. I'm confident in my pitches.''
The Giants can count on Benitez coming through in the ninth again. That's after they tried to get rid of him this winter only to learn there weren't many interested teams.
Benitez has converted all four of his save opportunities, but hasn't done so without some drama. In Friday night's 4-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, he walked two batters before working out of the jam and retiring Orlando Hudson to end the game. He allowed two baserunners Saturday but also had a pair of strikeouts to preserve a 1-0 victory for ace Barry Zito.
Benitez assured manager Bruce Bochy he could go out again Sunday if needed when Matt Cain got into some trouble in the ninth before finishing a three-hitter in a 2-1 win, the Giants' season-best fifth in a row.
``He feels great,'' Bochy said. ``He is a horse and is a guy who can throw every day. He is pitching with a lot of confidence right now. He wants to get out there when he can and the opportunity presents itself.''
Benitez, a two-time All-Star who ranks seventh among active closers with 284 career saves, struggled last season. He blew eight of his 25 save opportunities and questions about his health and his $7.6 million salary made trading him difficult.
``Early in spring training, he was a little different,'' said catcher Bengie Molina, in his first season working with the pitcher. ``But when he started pitching, I saw the same guy. He told us he was ready to ready to go and he wanted to prove to everybody he could pitch. He's doing really well.''
The Giants have said they consider Brian Wilson a candidate to be their closer of the future, and Benitez had to prove to the club this spring that he was healthy and could be an effective closer again.
``It looks like his velocity to an extent is back,'' Arizona manager Bob Melvin said. ``It's not 99 where it used to be, but when you see 94-95, the bravado's back. For closers, there's a lot of psychology that plays into it. For him, I'm sure he likes to see his velocity back.''
While the fans have been mostly supportive so far, they might be only one blown save from turning on him. The way Benitez is feeling, he hopes that won't happen.
He is a trim 250 pounds, looking as fit as he has in years. He has cut out alcohol, doesn't eat late at night and is committed to salads and protein shakes.
``He's worked,'' Bochy said. ``All spring, he put on his workout suit and was consistent with his workouts. He kept himself in shape and it's paying off for him.''
While it makes sense for Benitez to be back in form considering he's in a contract year, he also was on a mission to show everyone that he can still be a reliable ninth-inning option and that the biggest difference for him now is just being healthy again.
During spring training, he began power walking for 12 minutes on the treadmill with an incline and now he's up to 20 or 25 minutes. The Giants' training staff is preaching the importance of sticking to his routine and smart diet.
``When you have gone through the things he went through the last few years, you can't work out,'' head trainer Dave Groeschner said. ``It's just little things, but a lot of little things have helped him lose weight - and it's helped.''
As far as last season, Benitez says ``I don't want to talk about that.'' It has meant a lot to him that Bochy believes in what he can do and that his teammates have regained their trust in him.
``The manager knows what he has,'' Benitez said. ``He has confidence in me. Everybody in the room believes in what I can do. (Bochy) has given me an opportunity, and I don't want to disappoint anybody. ... Papi's back.''

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