To a very large degree, the decision to return Ben McDonald to the Orioles' starting rotation tonight was based on a scouting report from former manager Frank Robinson.
"Frank went in and watched Ben's last outing [in Rochester], and felt the stuff was there," said Orioles manager John Oates. That being the case, the decision was made several days ago not to delay McDonald's return any longer. Within the last 48 hours it was determined that Jose Mesa would be optioned to Rochester to make room for McDonald.
"This is not something we decided in the last 15 minutes," Oates said both before and after yesterday's 6-4 win over the slumping Boston Red Sox. "This obviously is a very important decision, and it was well thought out.
"We [the front office and the coaching staff] talked it over a lot. We considered what was best for Ben, what was best for the club, and what was best for Jose."
Obviously, at this point, what is best for McDonald is considered best for the club. One of the reasons the Orioles played so inconsistently early in the year was because they lacked a starter who could continually last until the seventh or eighth inning.
That is the role McDonald was expected to fill before his elbow blew out late in spring training. He has been on the disabled list twice and been able to pitch only 32 innings in seven starts.
Is he ready to return? "I think so," he said yesterday. "We're going to find out."
"Ben assured me that his problems [in two inauspicious rehabilitation outings in Rochester] had nothing to do with his elbow," Oates said yesterday. "That's all I was concerned about. We feel he's capable of going out and giving us between 80 and 100 pitches tomorrow.
"My biggest concern with Ben was not what he did [at Rochester], but his health. That's why we put him on the disabled list in the first place."
Convinced that McDonald can give them 80 to 100 pain-free pitches, the Orioles decided his rehabilitation no longer needed to be confined to the minor leagues.
Mesa's situation is almost exactly the reverse. The team's best pitcher for the first month of the season, the burly righthander hasn't won for more than six weeks. He has been extremely erratic during that time and Oates determined that his confidence could best be restored with some work in the minor leagues.
"Anybody who has seen Jose Mesa knows there is no comparison between him now and in 1988," said Oates. "He's going to be back. I told him that, but there are no promises when.
"He's a good man on the club and he's a hard worker," Oates said of Mesa. "I hope he gets it together soon so we can have him back here with us.
"He has been in one of those cycles where nothing seems to go right, and some of the things he's said to me lately indicate he's starting to think negative thoughts. This will give him a chance to go down and pitch under less microscopic conditions."
Oates has said repeatedly that he would not quit on Mesa because he had one of the best arms in the organization. The manager insists the most recent developments are not an indication that his thinking has changed.
"He has to learn to throw all of his pitches low in the strike zone," said Oates. "It seems that every time he got hurt it was when he got the ball up.
"You can have control, and you can have command of your pitches. But they are two different things," said Oates. "Jose has to get command of his pitches in the strike zone.
"He understands that. Everybody around here knows that Jose has a saying that 'a man's got to do what a man's got to do,' and that's what I told him. He's going to pitch up there [Rochester] on Thursday and he said he'd get up there early.
"He's going to work out with us [today], then fly to Rochester tomorrow and that's encouraging. He could say he wants his 72 hours [which an optioned player is allowed before he has to report]. I told him to take a day off, but he said he'd work out with us and then go up there. That's encouraging, it's what you like to see.
"Jose is very valuable to us, and he's going to be back," said Oates.
Meanwhile, the Orioles are hoping that the two starts McDonald gets before the All-Star break (he'll also pitch Saturday in New York) will prepare him to step in as the No. 1 man in the rotation during the second half of the season.