Joe Benson's late-spring emergence reached a new level with four hits including a walkoff single for a 6-5 Braves win over the Orioles on Thursday (video by David O'Brien)

Braves late-camp surprise Benson caps 4-hit night with game-winner

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – If the improbable ascension of Joe Benson ends with his making the Braves’ opening-day roster, he will no longer be able to say he did it without ever vacating his locker in the minor league clubhouse.

The Braves saw to that when they made an unusual move Thursday, adding the outfielder to their non-roster invitation list for the final three days of spring training. Then all he did was go 4-for-5 with a game-ending RBI single in the ninth inning of a 6-5 win against the Orioles.

“Oh, it feels great,” Benson said. “I got to start in Clearwater (against the Phillies Wednesday) and had an OK day at the dish, put the barrel on some balls. To get to come back and face another lefty in a night game was pretty special.”

Moving Benson to the major league clubhouse came a day after the 27-year-old, nine-year minor leaguer hit an opposite-field homer off Phillies ace Cole Hamels in Benson’s first Grapefruit League start. He had two hits against lefty starter Wei-Yin Chen and his winning single on a bouncer over shortstop off lefty T.J. McFarland.

These are heady times for the well-traveled former prospect, to say the least.

“It’s quite the rollercoaster ride,” said Benson, who has never been close to making a major league roster out of spring training, until now. “Just tons of emotion every day. Just came up here, I was on what they call Velcro squad, getting to come over here every other day or so, and make the most of opportunities.

“Play hard, try to put the ball in play, run hard to first base, play good defense. And I’m fortunate enough that they wanted to get a better look, and I got to come over here and play some more.

After signing a minor league contract in January that didn’t include an invitation to big-league camp, he toiled in minor league camp until catching the eye of Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez and coaches a few times when Benson was among the players brought over as a late-innings extras for Grapefruit League games.

Benson has shown he can hit left-handed pitching, and the Braves are now thinking he might be a good complement to the left-handed hitting Kelly Johnson as backup outfielders, with Benson able to play center fielder as well as the corner positions that Johnson can play.

“We’ve got him in their against some left-handed pitching,” Gonzalez said. “Put the ball in play, something happens. He runs well enough that he doesn’t have to square it up like he did yesterday against Hamels. He puts the ball in play, ball up the middle he can beat it out.

“He does a lot of good things; fundamentally sound in the outfield. That situation today couldn’t have been better for a bunch of guys, really, and they all did their jobs. (Lefty reliever) Feigl against (Chris) Davis earlier in the game. Brought in the kid Andrew (McKirahan) to face some lefties in the ninth inning. Joe Benson. Lot of good stuff happened today.”

The Braves were looking for a backup to center fielder Eric Young Jr. while Melvin Upton Jr. recovers from a foot injury, and weren’t overly enamored with candidates Eury Perez, who was optioned to Triple-A midway through spring training, and longtime Braves minor leaguer Todd Cunningham, who has also had a solid spring.

Benson is 7-for-17 with three walks and five strikeouts in 10 games, including 5-for-9 with a homer, three RBIs and a game-winning single in two starts. He started in center Wednesday, and Thursday night he played left field, making a running catch on a hard-hit, wind-blown fly ball that got him turned around before he showed speed in recovering to haul it in.

Unless the Braves make a late move or waiver claim for another center fielder, the opening-day roster choice will presumably be Benson, a former Twins prospect who’s played most of nine seasons in the minors, or Cunningham, who is already on the 40-man roster.

The Braves like the athleticism, speed and aggressiveness of Benson, once a standout high school running back and spurned a football scholarship to Purdue after being selected in the second round of the 2006 draft.

He was a highly regarded Twins prospect — he had 27 homers and 19 stolen bases in 123 minor league games in 2010 — before injuries slowed his career. He spent most of nine seasons in the minors, including parts of eight in the Twins organization before going to the Rangers on waivers in May 2013 and spending 2014 in the Marlins system.

Benson hit .259 with a .361 OBP, 10 homers and 15 stolen bases in 129 games (507 at-bats) last season, including 124 games at Double-A Jacksonville.

The Rangers loved his athleticism, but Benson couldn’t stay healthy while he was in their organization.

His only major league callup was with the Twins in 2011, when he was 17-for-71 (.239) with seven extra-base hits in 21 games, including a combined 19 starts at three outfield positions.

Benson has a .254 average, .347 OBP and 85 home runs in more than 3,500 career plate appearances in the minors, with 43 triples and 130 stolen bases in 861 games.

Cunniff optioned: The Braves made one other roster move Thursday, optioning right-handed reliever Brandon Cunniff to Triple-A Gwinnett.

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