The Baltimore Orioles had no right to expect anything special from right-hander Ben McDonald last night, not after the way he had pitched in two starts at the Class AAA level.
But this isn't the minor leagues, and McDonald isn't just any pitcher. He has the best arm in the organization, and he showed it was sound with an outstanding performance in the Orioles' 10-2 victory over the Detroit Tigers at Memorial Stadium.
The Tigers managed just two hits over eight innings in McDonald's first major-league start since May 22, when he gave up six runs in one inning against Detroit at Tiger Stadium.
That time, the Tigers helped Orioles officials decide to place McDonald and his sore elbow on the shelf. This time, they helped prove that the club made the right decision when it brought McDonald back after two mediocre injury rehabilitation starts for the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings.
"I went down [to the minor leagues] to see if my arm was 100 percent," McDonald said. "Once I knew that, I felt the rest was just mental. This was a big confidence booster."
Manager John Oates wasn't sure what to expect, not after McDonald gave up 10 hits and five walks over seven innings in his two minor-league appearances. But he did know that reports of a blister problem had been "greatly exaggerated."
"We knew he was healthy," Oates said. "We knew he had enough stuff. The question was, is he going to be able to throw the ball in the strike zone when he wants to?"
McDonald (3-3) answered that in a hurry. He carried a no-hit bid into the fifth inning and did not allow a runner to reach second base. Cecil Fielder finally delivered a single to lead off the fifth and Rob Deer added a single in the eighth, both hits coming long after the game was out of hand.
Oates had hoped to keep the pressure off McDonald, but he didn't figure to get so much help from his offensive lineup. The Orioles blasted four home runs in an early-inning onslaught that gave their young right-hander a 10-run advantage before the sixth inning and carried the club to its eighth victory in the last 10 games.
"It was what I call a social game," Tigers manager Sparky Anderson said. "You get time to talk to your players, because you know you're not going to do anything else."
Cal Ripken hit his 18th home run of the year with two on in the first inning as he continued his climb through the home run and RBI rankings. His .354 batting average puts him on top of the other Triple Crown category.
David Segui hit a three-run shot in the fourth and Leo Gomez hit a two-run homer in the fifth, the same inning that Sam Horn went deep for the 12th time this year.
"The guys have been swinging the bat pretty well," Oates said. "Junior has been outstanding. It was nice to see some runs on the board for Ben."
McDonald threw 89 pitches, walking no one and striking out seven before turning a shutout over to reliever Paul Kilgus in the ninth. It would not remain a shutout, but that would not tarnish one of the best performances of McDonald's major-league career.
"I was real determined, because of the way I pitched against them the last time out," McDonald said. "I know these guys. I've pitched against them twice. Any team is capable of being pitched to, but with the kind of stuff and command I had today, it could have been anybody."
He was on cruise control, but all the evidence may not be in yet. McDonald threw a six-hit complete game against the California Angels on May 17 -- one week before he went on the disabled list.
Thought Oates bristled at any notion that the club had brought its most valuable pitcher back too soon, he had to admit that it isn't always easy to get a pitcher to be totally honest about an injury.
"We've told him, 'We're not looking for war heroes -- you just have to be honest with us," Oates said before the game. "I wanted to impress on Ben that the future of our organization doesn't depend solely on him.
"We have a lot invested in him. He's important. But it's not fair to him to put the weight of the organization on his shoulders."
McDonald did not appear to be particularly burdened. He reeled off 12 straight outs to start the game and worked a very easy eight innings, the evening made even more relaxing by the Orioles' early-inning assault on Tigers rookie Dan Gakeler.
Brady Anderson and Joe Orsulak opened the Orioles half of the first inning with consecutive singles to bring the league's top hitter to the plate. That was Gakeler's first mistake. His second mistake was throwing anything in the strike zone to Ripken, who hit a line drive into the left field bleachers. Three batters -- Orioles 3, Tigers 0.
It was Ripken's third home run in as many games and it extended his hitting streak to nine. Over that span, he has scored 16 runs and reached base 24 times.
Gakeler settled down for a couple of innings, but the aerial assault had just begun. He got into trouble again in the fourth, giving up three straight hits to open the inning before giving way to reliever John Cerutti.
The Orioles treated Cerutti no better. Segui greeted him with a three-run shot to left to break the game open. It was Segui's second home run of the year.
Enter left-hander Steve Searcy, who gave up a pair of home runs in his first inning or work. Horn hit his 12th of the year with the bases empty and one out and Gomez followed with a two-run shot.
Horn has hit 26 home runs in his Orioles career, but that fifth-inning shot was his first against a left-handed pitcher.