Last season, the Chicago White Sox had a pitching staff in search of a leader, an ace, a stopper.
The candidates took several steps forward, then several backward during most of the summer, but at the end of a surprising, 94-win campaign, Jack McDowell had the most thrust.
He finished 8-2 with a 2.93 ERA in his final 12 starts, then returned this exhibition season to lead the American League with a 1.17 ERA.
So, all manager Jeff Torborg asked of McDowell yesterday was "to pick up where he left off. He did."
The right-hander out-dueled former Stanford University teammate Jeff Ballard yesterday, mesmerizing the Baltimore Orioles with a four-hitter in a 9-1 opening-game rout. That gives McDowell a leg up in his quest to lead a generally youthful rotation that includes Greg Hibbard, 26, Alex Fernandez, 21, and Melido Perez, 25, as well as knuckleballer Charlie Hough, 43.
"It's pretty much one of my goals to get off to a good start," said McDowell, 25. "That's why spring training meant a lot more to me than some people. The first halves of my years haven't been very good at all."
He matched his career high with 10 strikeouts and never was in jeopardy after a first-inning run on a single up the middle by Cal Ripken and a double by Glenn Davis on a breaking pitch that was hooked down the left-field line.
Two home runs by Sammy Sosa and a five-run, two-out rally in the sixth inning allowed McDowell to relax through the stretch of a game in which his forkball was diving and his fastball was jumping.
"He was getting his forkball over, and the umpire was calling it for strikes," said Orioles left fielder Randy Milligan, who had a single in four at-bats. "The guy threw a great game. When you've got two pitches working like he did, you're going to be mighty tough."
White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk said: "He was real aggressive with his fastball, and he maintained that all game long. But he wasn't the Lone Ranger when he said he was nervous."
McDowell said he "took a long time to get rid of the jitters, especially after Pudge [Fisk] told me he felt sick to his stomach."
Sosa helped remedy that with a three-run homer off Ballard in the second inning and a run-scoring single during the sixth, when seven straight White Sox reached base with two out.
Torborg's plan is to platoon Sosa, 22, with Cory Snyder in right field, but it may have to be revised. Snyder played left field yesterday.
"I have no idea what's going to happen," said Torborg. "I'll have to think about that one now. Joe Nossek [bench coach] was telling me he was glad to see we have such problems."
Sosa was the only American Leaguer to achieve an extra-base-hit "triple-double" last year, with 26 doubles, 10 triples and 15 home runs. He is regarded as an outstanding young player who needs to polish his defense and cut down his strikeouts (150 last year).
His first home run came on a 3-2 count after Ballard teased him with two close pitches with two strikes.
"I'm more relaxed and I know what I'm doing," said Sosa. "They were not the pitches I wanted, so I let them go. I just want to see the ball and hit it."
He said he has no idea about the manager's platoon plans, only that "I'm here to play every day. They know what I can do."
So commanding was McDowell that only three Orioles reached base after the first inning, and only one -- Devereaux on a sixth-inning double -- made it to scoring position.
"I just had a good mix, and the weather helped," he said. "You don't expect to come here into 80 degrees.
"I wasn't worried in the first inning. I wasn't getting crushed, but I had a couple 1 1/3 [-inning] outings last year, so that's in the back of your mind."
The White Sox's game-deciding flurry in the sixth was typical of a team that depends on a scrappy offense more than just power.
"Scoring all those runs with two outs shows how we just keep battling," said McDowell. "That's the type of team we are."
Fisk said: "We're a working team. We're not overly talented, but we have good work habits and we take them into the game."
Said Torborg: "But we had to come back an awful lot last year. You don't expect a game like this. But we peaked at the right time, won the last five in spring training."
With McDowell at the top of the peak.