FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The tightness in Ben McDonald's elbow has created more than disappointment for the Orioles' scheduled Opening Day pitcher.
It also has caused manager Frank Robinson and pitching coach Al Jackson to do some last-minute improvising. The end result will produce a little poetic justice.
Jeff Ballard, who figured to get the assignment last season after an 18-8 record in 1989, will get the honor this year despite coming off a dismal 2-11 mark. Robinson has yet to officially name Ballard, but a change in exhibition assignments makes it clear that the lefthander is being groomed to face the Chicago White Sox a week from today at Memorial Stadium.
"When you find out who's pitching Wednesday [against the Atlanta Braves], then you'll know who it's going to be," Jackson said about the Opening Day assignment after McDonald was officially scratched Saturday night.
Yesterday Jackson had Ballard throw on the sidelines before the Orioles' 9-2 loss to the Yankees and pushed his next exhibition start back two days -- to Wednesday night, when the lefthander will face the Montreal Expos.
After being examined by team orthopedic specialist Dr. Charles Silberstein, McDonald was diagnosed as having a "strained flexor muscle" in his right elbow. He has been put on medication and advised not to throw for four days. He'll play "soft toss," then throw off a mound, probably just before or immediately after the team returns to Baltimore. At that time a further evaluation will be made.
Missing his last two exhibition starts plus the Opening Day assignment almost certainly will keep McDonald sidelined at least until the end of the second week of the season. It is very possible he could open the season on the disabled list, since the move can be made retroactive and would give Robinson the option of having an extra pitcher available for the early games.
"It's disappointing," said McDonald, who, because of the off days in the early part of the schedule, had been penciled in to start six of the Orioles' first 21 games. "I was looking forward to pitching Opening Day. But I'd rather miss that, and maybe only one other, and be sure I can get my 30-32 starts during the season.
"There will be other Opening Days, I hope," said McDonald, "and I don't want to take the chance of doing something that might keep me out any longer."
Ballard will get the Opening Day assignment because of his performance this spring (3-0, 3.13 ERA in 23 innings) and the way the rotation has fallen into place -- not for any sentimental reasons connected to last year. He has had only one ineffective outing in his five appearances, and that was inconclusive because of windy conditions.
He was the leading candidate to start the second game, and any other plans would have required wholesale adjustments to the pitching schedule, something Robinson and Jackson want to avoid at this point.
The big question now is who goes in the second game. Jackson admitted Mike Flanagan "is one of the possibilities that has been discussed." That would seem to remove any doubt about the veteran lefthander making the team, though he and the club have not yet talked about a contract.
Jose Mesa didn't hurt his chances of reclaiming his pre-spring designation as the No. 2 starter with a strong seven-inning outing in Saturday night's 9-2 win over the Yankees. He and Flanagan both could pitch Thursday night against the Yankees, with a decision coming after that game.
"We've discussed a couple of different names," said Robinson, "but right now we're just concentrating on getting the first guy ready." He didn't volunteer that Ballard was his choice, but neither did he deny it when the lefthander's name was mentioned as the Opening Day starter.
A bigger problem for Robinson now is filling in the pitching assignments until McDonald is deemed healthy enough to return. He originally had planned to pitch McDonald every fifth day and make sure he stayed on schedule.
Now he's unsure of his approach. "I don't consider it a rotation until you get to the point where you have to use four or five guys," said Robinson. "We only need three at the beginning, but I can't say for sure it will be the same three each time around."
The "what have you done lately?" method appears to be the game plan for the first two weeks of the season. That isn't any different that Robinson had originally planned -- with one 6-foot-7 exception.
McDonald was being counted on as the anchor. Now he has to be dropped down in the pecking order.
It isn't the ideal way to start a season. Robinson has to hope that from among the group consisting of Ballard, Mesa, Dave Johnson, Bob Milacki and possibly Flanagan and Jeff Robinson, a couple of hot arms step forth to claim regular turns and restore a semblance of order to what is an unsettled situation.