MIAMI -- Right-hander Ben McDonald, who was scratche from an exhibition appearance Thursday because of elbow soreness, will not be the starter when the Baltimore Orioles open the regular season April 8 against the Chicago White Sox at Memorial Stadium.
When McDonald will make his 1991 regular-season debut remains a matter of speculation. He was examined yesterday by Orioles orthopedist Dr. Charles Silberstein, who diagnosed the injury as a strained flexor muscle and placed McDonald on anti-inflammatory medication.
Silberstein told the club to keep its most prized pitcher off the mound for at least six days, which means that he will not even test his arm until Saturday. The Orioles open the regular season two days later, but there has been no official announcement on who will take McDonald's place as the Opening Day starter.
Manager Frank Robinson indicated Friday that Dave Johnson would be the alternate but has backed off on that prediction even though Johnson would appear to be the logical choice. He was the winningest Orioles pitcher last year, and that usually is one of the traditional criteria for choosing a first-game starter.
The Orioles had hoped to take advantage of three open dates in the first eight days of the schedule to work McDonald in three of the first eight games. Now, there is a chance that he will not appear in any of the first eight games, though club officials seem optimistic that he'll be sidelined less than two weeks (including the eight days that remain of spring training).
McDonald will not pick up a ball for the next three days and will not throw off a mound until Saturday. Robinson said that it would be a minimum of six days after that before he could pitch in a game. If all goes well, McDonald could pitch in the Orioles' road opener April 12 in Texas, but no one is banking on that.
"We're not going to force it," pitching coach Al Jackson said. "I expect Ben to make 35 starts this year. Missing one or two starts at the beginning isn't going to make any difference."
The injury has forced the club to rethink its pitching scenario for the first two weeks of the season. Perhaps that's why Robinson is reluctant to make his Opening Day plans official.
He has to decide whether to take the most effective pitcher of the spring and use him the same way the club was going to use McDonald or scrap the temporary three-starter system and go with four pitchers. Left-hander Jeff Ballard (3-0, 3.13 ERA) has been the most successful of last year's starters. Johnson is 0-1 with a 5.29 ERA in four exhibition starts.
"You're probably not going to use but three starters for the first couple of rounds," Jackson said. "It'll most likely be Dave and two other guys, but it could be four guys."
McDonald was pleased with the diagnosis, even though it guaranteed that he would miss the opening bell for the second straight season. He opened the 1990 campaign on the disabled list with a strained muscle in his side. The Orioles could decide to put him on the DL again so that they can keep an extra player for the first week of play.
"It was good news," McDonald said. "It was just what I diagnosed, a strained muscle. I'll go on some medication tomorrow, not touch a ball for three days, start long-tossing for a few days and work back into it. We'll just see how the medication affectsme. If I'm not 100 percent, they aren't going to send me out there."
It probably was the best prognosis the Orioles had a right to expect under the circumstances, but Robinson was not exactly delighted with the news that he would be without his best pitcher for at least one regular-season start.
"It could have been better news," he said, "but the doctor said it, you accept it and you go on."
The elbow stiffness first appeared in McDonald's third start of the Grapefruit League season. He had overpowered hitters his first two times out, but his performance declined as the soreness increased. He was supposed to face the Montreal Expos in West Palm Beach on Thursday but was scratched when his arm would not loosen up in the bullpen.
Last spring, a strained lateral oblique muscle cost him a chance to compete for American League Rookie of the Year honors. He ended up spending the first half of the season with the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings, his 1990 major-league debut delayed by the appearance of two blisters on his pitching hand.