KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Jeff Bennett still gets those cravings for anything chocolate. Then he looks at himself in the mirror.
He sure likes what he sees — and doesn’t see.
Bennett has dropped more than 50 pounds in the last seven months, reporting to spring training in probably the best shape of his life and giving himself a legitimate chance to claim a job in the Atlanta Braves’ high-profile rotation.
The 27-year-old journeyman hopes to get the ball along with pitchers such as John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, former Cy Young winners he grew up cheering for in his native Tennessee.
"You’re not going to have an opportunity like this very often," said Bennett, now checking in at a svelte 208 pounds. "I just want to listen to what they say, take in all the knowledge they have as much as I can, and hopefully it will roll over to me some day."
The Braves insist Bennett is a legitimate contender for a starting spot.
"That kid," manager Bobby Cox said, "he can get you out."
Bennett got his first taste of the big leagues in 2004, working 60 games as a middle and long reliever for the Milwaukee Brewers. It was a rather nondescript role on a bad team, the sort of season (1-5 with a 4.79 ERA) that might have spelled one-and-done for some guys.
Bennett was back in the minors the following year, and that shooting pain in his right elbow wasn’t helping matters. Just when he was poised to sign a minor-league deal with the Braves, he got the diagnosis that all pitchers fear: Tommy John surgery would be required.
Without a team in 2006, Bennett spent the year rehabbing on his own. It wasn’t easy, having to push himself through all those grueling, boring drills, and he began to pack on the pounds even as his arm got stronger.
Bennett finally signed with the Braves a year behind schedule, hooking on with their Triple-A team in Richmond. Midway through a season in which he did everything from starting to closing, he stepped on the scales and saw a disturbing number — 262 pounds.
It was time for a change. Sweets and sweet tea were out, replaced on Bennett’s personal menu by foods such as chicken and fish, vegetables and rice. Instead of watching TV, he would go out for a jog.
"I was not in very good shape," he conceded. "Running up a flight on stairs would get me tired."
Bennett, who had been a reliever since 2003, knew he had to get slimmer if he wanted to be a starter. His wife, Rachel, was a big help in that regard. She took over the cooking, making sure her husband stuck to a healthy diet.
"It was really hard at first," he said. "Now, it’s more of a lifestyle than just a fad. I told my wife, ‘I’m going to stick with it."’
What was the hardest thing to give up?
"Sweets, by far," Bennett said, breaking into an embarrassing grin. "Anything chocolate. I was a chocolate guy."
Bennett was called up by the Braves late last season and impressed in the first two starts of his major league career, allowing four runs in 11 2-3 innings. He then headed to the Venezuelan winter league, putting up solid numbers until a tiring arm finally forced him to shut things down.
In his first season back from Tommy John surgery, Bennett wound up throwing some 180 innings.
"I really wanted to show some consistency," he said. "They’ve got a lot of really good pitchers here. It’s going to be a big competition in spring training. But it’s something I look forward to. I’m not dreading it."
The first three spots are set: Tim Hudson, Smoltz and Glavine. Mike Hampton, who gives Atlanta a fourth pitcher with a 20-win season on his resume, is hoping to return after missing the last two years with elbow problems.
Depending on Hampton’s health, the Braves will have one or two spots available. Bennett expects to contend with Chuck James, an 11-game winner each of the last two seasons, and promising youngsters Jair Jurrgens and Jo-Jo Reyes.
Bennett has added a change-up to his fastball-slider routine, and the Braves are certainly impressed with his ground ball-fly ball ratio, which approaches the elite 3-to-1 level.
"After what we saw last year, he certainly gets your attention," Cox said. "Just the way he approaches pitching. He goes right after the hitter. He has a slider and a good change-up. He didn’t look like a guy who missed a year of pitching."