What Ben McDonald proved last night was minor-leagu results often are not a true barometer of a player's readiness for the big leagues.
Had the Orioles judged the 6-foot-7 righthander solely by thnumbers he put up in two rehabilitation outings at Rochester, McDonald would have pitched for the Red Wings again last night.
The decision to return McDonald to the big-league rotation wabased primarily on what former manager Frank Robinson saw -- not what John Oates read in the game reports. "We had a meeting last Friday and Frank said, 'He's throwing with enough stuff right now to be your No. 1 starter,' and that was enough for me," said Oates.
After seven innings, 116 pitches, 10 hits and six earned runs in two Triple A starts, McDonald made his first big-league appearance since May 22 last night. His line: eight innings, two hits, seven strikeouts.
Backed by four home runs, including a three-run shot by CaRipken in the first inning that set the tone for the evening, it all added up to a 10-2 waltz for the Orioles over the Detroit Tigers.
Robinson couldn't have predicted McDonald's dominatinperformance last night, but he wasn't necessarily surprised either. "You know if he's healthy, he's capable of doing that," said Robinson, who watched last night's game from the club's mezzanine box with general manager Roland Hemond.
"When you watch somebody like that in the minor leagues, yohave to go blind to the results," said Robinson. "You know he's working on things -- that he's not necessarily focused on getting people out.
"You look at the velocity of his fastball, the break of his curvebaland the speed of his changeup. You look to see if he's sound mechanically -- to see if he's smooth."
Robinson saw everything in Rochester, including the sam93-mph fastball displayed at times last night, except the almost perfect control that McDonald showed against the Tigers.
"That was the only question," said Oates. "Would he havenough command of his pitches? We knew he was healthy, that his velocity was good and that he had all of his pitches. I think the most surprising thing was no walks and the fact he went to three balls on only two hitters."
McDonald threw 43 pitches in the first four innings and 46 in thlast four innings he worked. "That shows you a lot -- that he maintained his control, and that he wasn't tiring," said Robinson. When you start to wear down, control is usually the first thing to go."
As pleased as he was with the results, Oates wasn't overly
surprised that McDonald, 23, was more effective in the big leagues than he was in the minors. "A lot of times it's easier to play in the major leagues," said Oates. "The conditions, the scouting reports -- once you get here, and have the talent, it can be easier.
"I've had more than one pitcher tell me that when he went to thminor leagues he couldn't work on setting a hitter up. You make a couple of nasty pitches, but the hitter doesn't know he's being set up, sees the ball and hits it.
"We've asked Ben to be completely honest with us, and he habeen, so we knew he was healthy," said Oates. "And it's not like we just jumped him right up to 90 pitches. He didn't do much more tonight than he did the last time out [78 pitches at Rochester].
"It took five times to get him to this point," said Oates, who thinkthe next step is to try to remove some of the burden from McDonald. "We've placed a lot of expectations on him as an organization. Maybe it's time to back off a little. He's only a human being, maybe we've just got to let him pitch a little bit."
Even though he wasn't particularly effective at RochesterMcDonald agreed with the Orioles' decision to bring him back after two rehab starts. "I knew I was healthy," he said, "and felt I was ready to come back."
The Orioles had sent him to Rochester and told him not to worrabout results, just face some hitters, use all of his pitches and build up his stamina. He did that and, bingo, he returned.
"It wouldn't have been very professional to send him down therand tell him not to worry about results -- and then not bring him back because the results weren't good," said Hemond. "And Ben has a good feel for these things, he has an understanding for the game. He wasn't down there worrying about striking everybody out.
"I'm glad Frank went to see Ben, because he's been watchinhim for two years now. I just told him 'you tell John what you saw.' "
What Robinson saw, was all Oates wanted to hear.
McDonald will get one more start before the All-Star brea(Saturday in New York), and then he'll lead off the Orioles' rotation in Oakland when the second half of the season gets under way a week from Thursday.
"I know if I'm healthy I can get guys out," said McDonald (3-3). Halso knows he's only one spoke in the wheel, even though he's expected to be the biggest spoke.
"I still have a lot to learn," he said. "I've only had 23 starts in thbig leagues, and that's not exactly a veteran pitcher. I feel like when I have my good stuff I can dominate a game and everybody needs a guy like that. But I just want to be one guy in a five-man rotation."
McDonald won't have the luxury for many years of being jusanother guy in the rotation, no matter how much the manager or the organization tries to soft-pedal his importance. But, at this point, that doesn't matter.
What does matter is that McDonald stay healthy and get abou18 more starts before the season ends.