McDonald refuses to back down to Morris in pitching duel for the ages


September 13, 1990|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Evening Sun Staff

The pitcher of the '80s met the pitcher of the '90s last night at Memorial Stadium. Together they transformed a meaningless September game into a classic period piece: Jack Morris at the twilight of his career, Ben McDonald at the break of dawn.

The Orioles' 2-1 victory over Detroit indeed reflected the passage of time -- Morris unleashing all his fury, but in the end coming undone; McDonald oozing all his talent, then celebrating pTC with a youthful leap, both fists clenched above his head.

Morris, 35, took a two-hit shutout into the eighth before allowing Jeff McKnight's first career homer to start the inning. He then walked rookie David Segui, igniting the game-winning rally that culminated in Cal Ripken's bases-loaded single off shortstop Alan Trammell's glove.

McDonald, 22, allowed his only run in the first inning, on a leadoff walk, two groundouts and Cecil Fielder's 117th RBI, a mere single. He then retired the side in order in six of his next eight innings, giving up a total of three hits. Morris gave up five.

The matchup was something to behold, something for the ages. Morris' fastball was clocked at 93 mph, and pitching coach Al Jackson said, "All our young kids were amazed." Ripken wasn't. He said Morris, the winningest pitcher of the past decade, threw as well as he did in 1983 and '86, his two 20-win seasons.

And McDonald? "If you don't like him," Tigers manager Sparky Anderson said, "you don't like baseball." Hitting coach Vada Pinson went even further: "He's devastating for a young man. Think what he's going to be like when he really learns to pitch.

"It's something else to be that young, and throw that hard, and that good," Pinson continued. "He reminds me of someone like [Nolan] Ryan or [Sandy] Koufax, and he has more control than they had when they started. Remember, they were wild at the beginning. Maybe he'll calm down and learn another pitch or two. Who knows?"

Actually, McDonald threw about 10 changeups last night to complement his 96-mph fastball and wicked curve. Later, he would say, "I felt like I had my best stuff all year." He matched his career-high with seven strikeouts, and allowed only one hit after the third inning, stifling the highest-scoring team in the American League.

His most daunting task came in the ninth, when he faced the Tigers' 3-4-5 hitters after the Orioles finally took the lead. But though he would throw 123 pitches, McDonald's curveball was as good at that point as it has been all season, according to Orioles first-base coach Johnny Oates.

Trammell hit a weak fly to center -- "his heart said swing at it, his rear end went the other way," Oates said. Fielder then flied to right (the major-league home-run leader had two of the Tigers' three hits, off the only fastballs he saw all night). Finally, Larry Sheets struck out for the third time, flailing at a 3-2 curve.

McDonald (7-4, 2.45) has worked into the seventh in nine of 11 starts, and manager Frank Robinson said he easily could have 10 wins. He is averaging only 2.45 walks per nine innings (three last night), and his opponents are batting .204. The Orioles are 7-4 in his starts since he entered the rotation July 21, 13-25 in their other games.

As for last night, McDonald said, "I knew it would be a tough game. He [Morris] has got that kind of reputation. He was definitely the best pitcher in the '80s. I grew up watching him. You can learn by watching him. He's real durable.

"Every fifth day he's out there the whole game, no matter if he's given up runs or not," McDonald said. "It just goes to show if you hang around long enough, you've got a chance to win. He's a helluva competitor."

Morris (11-18, 4.94) retired the first 10 hitters he faced, escaped a bases-loaded jam when Mickey Tettleton grounded into an inning-ending double play in the fourth and did not allow a hit until Segui sent a double down the rightfield line with two outs in the fifth.

He has more career decisions against the Orioles (11-13) than McDonald has career appearances (23), but last night served as a microcosm of his season. Morris leads the AL with nine complete games, yet is tied with Tim Leary for the league lead in losses. "He's pitched far better than that," Anderson said. "He should be above .500."

Perhaps: Morris has given up more unearned runs than any pitcher in the majors, and Anderson said more cheap hits too. Still, he has shown a disturbing tendency to unravel the moment something goes wrong, and McKnight's home run was the perfect trigger for a veteran on an emotional edge.

McKnight wasn't even supposed to be in the Orioles' lineup; he was a late addition after Joe Orsulak was scratched with a sore back. In any case, Morris struck him out on vicious forkballs his first two times up. McKnight moved up on the plate for his third at-bat, but the thing that helped him most was Morris' belt-high, first-pitch fastball.

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