McDonald's No.1 problem Expected to be ace, rookie is still finding himself in big-league deck

July 23, 1991|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Evening Sun Staff

Expectations are a terrible burden, and few people in baseball have shouldered more of them than the Orioles' Ben McDonald.

As long as he can remember, people have expected a lot of him, often more than he could deliver. It was that way in high school. It was that way at Louisiana State. It was that way when he became the Orioles' No. 1 draft choice. It is that way now.

"At LSU, if I didn't pitch a two-hitter and strike out 15, people felt I had a bad game," McDonald said. "It doesn't bother me. I'm just looking to be one guy on a five-man staff."

To this point, that's about all McDonald has been. But the Orioles expect so much more. They want him to be the ace of the staff, the leader.

McDonald would settle for something less than that -- a couple of strong games back-to-back, for example. Tonight, when he opposes the California Angels in the opener of a three-game series at Memorial Stadium, would be an ideal time to start.

"That's the problem with the whole staff -- no strong efforts back-to-back," said manager John Oates. "They'll tease you with a great game, then give up a lot of hits or throw up in the strike zone the next time.

"It's not like the same guy is messing up all the time, or like we have one guy who wins four or five straight games. That's our predicament."

In one sense, McDonald feels he may be able to string together a few good performances for the simple reason he has

experienced such a variety of situations at the major-league level. This will be his 26th start, 12th this year.

"I'm learning more all the time," said McDonald, who will take a 4-3 record and a 5.72 earned run average into tonight's game. "I've been in every possible situation."

He was alluding to his most recent, when he was staked to a 7-0 lead last week in Kansas City but failed to survive the fourth inning. Before anyone called the fire department, it was 7-4, and the Orioles went on to lose in the 15th.

"I was cruising and felt good, but I lost my concentration," McDonald said. "I had never been in that situation in the big leagues, with a big lead like that.

"Instead of pitching my game like I had the first three innings -- mixing my fastball, curve and changeup -- I began throwing fastballs as if to say, 'Let's see you hit it.' They did. I should have stuck to my game plan and pitched like the score was 1-1."

Pitching coach Al Jackson puts it this way: "Ben's a rookie. A talented rookie, but nevertheless a rookie."

Mike Flanagan, at 39 the valued antique of the staff, tends to agree with Jackson. He won't criticize the organization for failing to give McDonald a full year of seasoning in the farm system -- only 12 minor-league games -- but he does point out that the 6-foot-7 righthander is still in the learning period. McDonald has worked 183 major-league innings.

"It takes a few hundred innings, some guys more, some less," Flanagan said. "It's a big jump from the minors, and he didn't have much experience down there.

"Of course, this is a different era. Back when I signed, if you went right to Double A, it was really something. I needed that minor-league experience. Everybody has to be patient with someone like Ben. You can't teach a 90-mph fastball."

McDonald maintains he has fully recovered from the strained muscle in his right elbow suffered in spring training that put him on the disabled list for the first 11 days of the season. A recurrence of the injury sidelined him May 24 to June 30.

In his first game upon returning, July 1, McDonald shut out the Detroit Tigers for eight innings, again bringing those expectations to the surface. He hasn't matched that since. Oates would call it a tease.

"My arm is healthy now," McDonald said. "It was my first arm injury, and I didn't know the difference between pain and soreness. I thought it was regular soreness when I first did it, and tried to pitch through it. I'm lucky I didn't do more damage."

Jackson, however, feels McDonald still hasn't regained his former arm strength.

Maybe, Jackson reasons, that's why McDonald hasn't put strong efforts back-to-back.

The expansionist Colorado Rockies say they will contact five clubs this week for permission to talk to certain executives with an eye toward forming their own front office. The teams are the St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, Montreal Expos, Oakland A's and Cincinnati Reds.

At least for now, that would appear to rule out Doug Melvin as a candidate for the general manager's position. Melvin, the Orioles' assistant GM, is considered one of baseball's rising young executives.

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