Ben McDonald is learning a hard fact of life in the major leagues. Throwing a baseball 94 mph in the general vicinity of home plate is not enough to be successful.
"I'm learning the hard way, there's no doubt about that," McDonald said after the Orioles' 5-4 loss to the California Angels last night at Memorial Stadium.
The 6-foot-7 righthander does not impress anyone as being unduly wild. Of his 117 pitches, 72 were strikes, not extraordinary, but not bad either.
He walked one batter in 6 1/3 innings, a ratio that would be considered excellent under most circumstances. But McDonald knows better, and so does his manager, John Oates.
"I don't have an answer [to McDonald's ineffectiveness]," said Oates, "but I do know you can't pitch at this level with one pitch. I don't care if it is 94 miles per hour.
"What I saw tonight was a repeat of what I saw in Kansas City [when McDonald couldn't hold a 7-0 lead]. Fastballs up and curveballs up.
"Velocity-wise, it's there. He can throw 100 pitches and still throw 90 mph. But right now they are not even worried about his other pitches. They're just hacking at the fastball."
Oates pulled out the pitching chart and noted that the Angels got one hit off a changeup (a single by Dave Winfield) and one off a curve (a home run by Gary Gaetti). The rest came off fastballs.
"I'd like to look and see what the counts were on the fastballs," said McDonald, zeroing in on the problem.
Of the 30 hitters he faced, McDonald's first pitch was a ball to 19 of them. Of those 19, the second pitch was also a ball.
"I'd say that 95 percent of the time when the count is 1-and-0 or 2-and-0, I throw the fastball," admitted McDonald.
It's safe to assume then that the hitters are only getting fooled 5 percent of the time on those pitches. "It's no secret," said Oates. "These other teams know he's having trouble getting the curveball over the plate. They just throw all that other stuff out the window and wait on the fastball."
When the fastball gets up to 94 on the radar gun, it's supposed to get people out, even in the big leagues. But last night, McDonald (4-4) gave up a career-high 12 hits and three home runs (matching his career high) because he couldn't just rear back and throw the ball past hitters.
"I've always been known as a power pitcher," said McDonald, "but I like to think I can get hitters out with finesse, too."
Right now he's caught in a Catch-22 situation. He can neither overpower nor finesse hitters because he's consistently pitching behind in the count.
He can't throw the curve for strikes in fastball situations -- or fastballs for strikes in curveball situations. When one-third of the hitters are swinging at 1-and-0 pitches and another third are hacking at 2-and-0 pitches, as was the case last night, it doesn't leave much room.
"We expect so much from Ben," said Oates, admitting that maybe too much is expected too soon. "With him healthy, we just hoped for a little more consistency.
"I'm not concerned about his velocity -- it's there. It's his location. His trademark pitch is the fastball at the knees and right now it just isn't there."
If there is any consolation for McDonald, he could draw on the performance of his opponent last night -- former Olympic teammate Jim Abbott. A heralded first-round draft pick the year before McDonald was the first player picked in the country, Abbott broke in at the major-league level.
The lefthander was 12-12 in 1989, 10-14 last year, lost his first four decisions this year, and seemed on the verge of being sent to the minor leagues. But since then he has gone 8-3 and last night he dominated the Orioles with McDonald's style -- power and finesse.
After Abbott left following the seventh inning, the Orioles got a grand slam from Randy Milligan to make it close, but while the lefthander was on the mound he made it look ridiculously easy.
"I've heard a lot of guys say it takes three or four years to get adjusted to the big leagues," said McDonald. "Jim's got a little more experience than I do right now -- and he's going to get better, you'll see."
McDonald will get better, too. Perhaps not as soon as the Orioles had hoped, but in due time. The added experience will help, but that won't necessarily make him throw first-pitch curveballs for strikes or keep fastballs at the knees.
That will come with mechanical adjustments that become automatic, not something to be thought about on every pitch.
Then there will be curveballs that find the strike zone on the first pitch, enough changeups to add variety -- and fastballs that consistently find the lower portion of the zone.
Until then, McDonald's adjustment to the big leagues will continue to be a learning experience.