Last July 21, on a hot, humid night at Memorial Stadium, Jack McDowell pitched nearly the same game against the Orioles as he did yesterday. His strikeout total (10) was identical. But he allowed two runs on five hits, instead of one run on four.
That was one difference.
The other was Ben McDonald.
McDowell won yesterday's season opener 9-1, but lost last summer's original 2-0. It was the night of McDonald's first major-league start. He threw just 85 pitches, and shut out the Chicago White Sox on four hits.
Jeff Ballard, on the other hand, gave up seven runs yesterday, the most by an Orioles starter in an opening game. He pitched better than that, but the fact is, McDonald is the only Orioles starter who could have beaten McDowell, who could have matched him pitch for nasty pitch.
Win or lose yesterday, the bottom line was this: For all the excitement surrounding the Orioles' rejuvenated lineup, the club's ability to mount a serious run for the division title will depend almost entirely on McDonald staying healthy.
So far, no good.
True, he's only 23. True, he has made only 15 major-league starts. But as catcher Bob Melvin put it, "He's like Roger Clemens for the Red Sox or Dave Stieb for Toronto. He's not
established as they are, but he's our ace."
As such, McDonald was supposed to pitch yesterday, satisfying the big crowd, fueling the big dreams. Instead, he watched from the dugout. His injury is a strained flexor muscle in his right elbow. It figures to keep him out of the rotation for at least the next two weeks.
Ballard loomed as a worthy replacement, an 18-game winner two years ago, a rousing success this spring. Aside from a three-run homer to Sammy Sosa, he was nearly as effective as McDowell in the early innings. But after retiring 13 in a row, he gave up four straight two-out singles in the sixth, and the rout was on.
Yes, the Orioles might have lost even with McDonald: A lineup with eight righthanded hitters isn't the ideal way to attack a tough righthander like McDowell. That, however, is an issue for another day. McDonald comes first. Then the discussion begins.
As it stands, the Orioles' four starters (Ballard, Jose Mesa, Dave Johnson and Jeff Robinson) are a combined 87-86 lifetime. McDonald is the ace after less than half a season as a starter. It's a lot to ask. But he's a special case.
He was 8-5 last season with a 2.43 ERA. His record should have been better, but the Orioles averaged only 3.2 runs behind him, the lowest for any of their starters. Still, McDonald averaged more than seven innings per start. His opponents batted .127 with men in scoring position.
"Ben can just be a dominating-type pitcher, that's all," manager Frank Robinson said. "When you have that ability, you can win even when you don't have your good stuff. And when you have your good stuff, you're going to shut the other team down. A staff can feed off that."
This staff has no choice. Now that his elbow is sound, Ballard might be the most credible starter. Sosa's homer came on a 3-2 changeup, but the other five hits off him were singles, and he didn't allow a walk. He should be capable of winning 12 to 15 games.
After that, the questions begin. The rap on Mesa is his lack of major-league experience. The rap on Dave Johnson is his limited repertoire. The rap on Jeff Robinson is his 0-3 spring record and 7.59 ERA.
A case can be made for each, especially Johnson, who led the club with 13 wins last season. Still, none can safely be expected to contribute 15 victories or 200 innings. Clemens and Mike Boddicker exceeded those totals for division champion Boston last season, and Greg Harris came close.
That leaves Bob Milacki, who combined with Ballard for 32 wins in 1989, but only seven last year. The Orioles want him to become their fifth starter. Never mind that he's starting the season at Double A Hagerstown. He simply needs more work.
Milacki pitched 240 innings in '89, but a weak rotator cuff continues to rob him of both velocity and control. Still, he threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of 20 batters in Sunday's exhibition against Boston. As pitching coach Al Jackson put it, "That's what you like to see."
For all that, Milacki is hardly a sure thing. McDonald, when healthy, comes close. That's a stopper. That's his goal. "I like the challenge of being No. 1, of facing their best pitcher," he said. "I welcome that."
The Orioles welcome it too. They took bold steps to improve their run production last winter, but few to correct their pitching. It was sound reasoning if McDonald stayed healthy. But yesterday was the first sign: Without him, it's another story.