McDonald still mystery to Birds

May 08, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

OAKLAND, Calif. -- On a night when Harold Baines flirted with baseball history while launching an assault on the Oakland record book, all the Orioles could do was add another worry.

A very big worry. One that stretches out to 6 feet 7.

When the ace has an 8.80 earned run average, that team is in trouble. So if Ben McDonald isn't the Orioles' biggest problem at the moment, he's certainly the tallest.

Just when it looked like he was ready to step and apply a few collars, McDonald (1-2) was unceremoniously clubbed during the Orioles' 11-3 loss here last night.

Maybe the A's picked up a few pointers from the Cleveland NTC Indians (who scored 35 runs in two games) over the weekend. Whatever, the onslaught was enough to leave McDonald and the Orioles in an even deeper state of confusion.

This is the pitcher the Orioles had counted on to get them out of the gate by starting six of the first 21 games. The season is now 24 games old and McDonald, who opened the season on the disabled list with a sore elbow, has been to the mound four times with only one win to show for his efforts.

"He's not at the top of his game," said Orioles manager Frank Robinson. "He doesn't throw consistently as well as he can.

"There were times last year when he went out there with nothing but a fastball and blew teams away. I haven't seen that fastball yet -- at least not consistently."

McDonald's explanation was much simpler than Robinson's, but maybe not as complete. It was also a little scary, because his assessment of how he threw was a little different than the manager's.

"I felt like I had a better fastball than I've had any time this year, at least velocity-wise," said McDonald, who yielded four hits, three walks and five earned runs in two innings. "But when you can't throw it over the plate, it makes it difficult.

"I couldn't throw strikes," said the big righthander. "I just stunk tonight.

"When I could get ahead I was good, but I kept getting behind in the count and they just sat there looking for the fastball. It's tough to pitch like that."

McDonald's fastball, however, is such that he's supposed to be able to overpower teams, even if they are looking for it. But that hasn't happened yet this year.

"He can do that," said Robinson, when asked why McDonald hasn't been able to dominate hitters with his No. 1 pitch. "But he can't do it all the time. Why do you think Nolan Ryan had so much trouble early in his career when the only thing he could throw for a strike was the fastball -- and he was throwing 102 mph?

"I haven't seen the same fastball from him that I saw last year. And if you're not really popping the ball, you're going to get hurt -- especially if you keep throwing it up here," said Robinson, extending his hand chest-high.

"He's not throwing that good fastball at the knees, and everybody who saw him, going back to college, knows that's what he does best. I don't know what it is, maybe he's a little timid because of the injury."

The Orioles' track record on the seriousness of injuries has not been too good lately, but Robinson insisted there was nothing wrong with McDonald. "I know he's not hurt," said the manager.

McDonald made no excuses for his latest poor outing, blaming only himself. "It all started with a leadoff walk," he said. "And you walk a guy like Rickey Henderson and you have to worry about him stealing."

Last night Henderson must've known his speed wasn't needed. The all-time base-stealing champion walked twice in the first two innings, but never even bluffed a steal.

It wasn't necessary because Baines was in the midst of a career night. The lefthanded slugger from Maryland's Eastern Shore had three home runs and a double to drive in seven runs. In the process he tied Reggie Jackson's club record for home runs in a game and established a mark with 14 total bases.

The most dramatic moment in the otherwise listless game came in the ninth inning, when Baines faced Bob Milacki with two outs and a chance to equal the all-time record for home runs in one game. However, Baines walked on four pitches.

"If they were [in the strike zone], I would have swung," Baines said. "But they were all below my knees. I was just trying to swing at strikes tonight."

"I think some people might have been a little more aggressive, just trying to take a shot at history," A's manager Tony La Russa said. "But I admire his discipline."

"He had a career night," said McDonald, who gave up a two-run homer to Baines during a four-run first inning and a run-scoring double before he left in the third.

Asked if he was discouraged, McDonald said: "I'm disappointed, but not to the point of worrying about it. The season is too long for that. I didn't do a good job tonight, but I'm looking forward to my next start."

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