While Ben McDonald continues to be a mystery, Juan Bell has become a marvel.
Silver linings are hard to come by for the Orioles these days, especially with McDonald laboring through his learning period. But in the last two weeks Bell has more than backed up the opinions of those who have insisted he has the tools to be a regular in the big leagues.
For different reasons, McDonald and Bell were the center of conversation after the Orioles lost a 4-2 decision to Milwaukee at Memorial Stadium last night. While unable to completely explain McDonald's inconsistency, Orioles manager John Oates admitted that his eyes have been opened by the recent play of Bell.
Just as two years of pro ball is not enough time to offer a complete evaluation of McDonald, neither is two weeks sufficient to make a judgment on Bell. But there is no question the switch-hitting infielder has improved his stock since taking over at second base for the injured Bill Ripken.
"Juan Bell has come a long way," Oates said of the second baseman, who began his replacement role by going 8-for-58 (.138) and making critical errors in back-to-back losses in mid-July. "If you're looking for a most improved player, from the start of spring training until now, he wins hands down.
"The ball is jumping off his bat, and he's doing the job defensively. He is playing very well right now."
For the third straight game, Bell rapped two hits (both doubles) last night. He also hit the ball sharply in his other two at-bats -- a fly ball to the warning track in rightfield and a line drive to centerfield.
The rash of extra-base hits (two doubles and a triple in the last three games) is partly explained by the fact the Brewers' outfield has been playing him extremely shallow. But that does not alter the fact that Bell has hit the ball with authority -- and batting coach Tom McCraw is not overly concerned with Bell becoming power conscious.
"He's not overswinging," said McCraw. "He's putting a nice stroke on the ball -- and the left side is not even his strong side. He's got a chance to be a pretty good player."
Which is exactly what people in the organization have been insisting, though not unanimously. "We've said all along that he has tools," said Oates. "This is the first chance he's had to play any length of time. He's playing with confidence and the ball is jumping off his bat."
Since replacing Ripken (rib cage injury) 22 games ago, Bell has hit .260 (19-for-73). His performance eases any necessity to rush Ripken back into the lineup, and also presents Oates with a decision -- what to do when both are available.
"I'll address that when we get to that day," said Oates, aware that opposing teams are just now getting a look at Bell. "It would be hard to take him [Bell] out of the lineup the way he's playing right now."
That, at least, is one problem the manager doesn't have to worry about with McDonald. "The only place he's going to get innings is right here [in the big leagues]," said Oates. "And I'm going to get him as many as I can without jeopardizing the immediate success of the club.
"There are other guys I would've taken out during that inning [the Brewers' three-run fifth], but the only way he's going to learn is to pitch. If we're going to do anything around here in the future, eventually he'll have to improve and develop.
"Otherwise we've got to go out and find four pitchers better than him. The only way he's going to improve and develop is for him to get as many innings as possible."
There were occasions last night when McDonald appeared to overpower the Brewers with his 93-mph fastball. Other times the fastball looked very ordinary, traveling a line drive route to the outfield.
"I thought he made progress with his curveball tonight," said Oates. "He threw some good ones for strikes, and he threw more of them. But if you're only going to throw 20 of them a game -- and only 10 of them are probably going to be strikes -- major-league hitters are not even going to think about that pitch. They're going to wait for the fastball, and even if it is 93 mph they'll hit it -- especially if it's above the waist."
That observation was echoed by ex-Oriole Don Baylor, the Brewers' hitting coach. "Last year he had a good breaking ball," Baylor said of McDonald, "but he didn't throw that many tonight.
"He repeated his fastball, like to Robin Yount [in the three-run fifth] -- fastball, fastball, fastball, then he got a hit. Experienced hitters will hit that fastball unless it's 95 mph and thrown right where he wants to throw it."
Yount, a murderous fastball hitter, said he didn't see a curveball in four at-bats against McDonald. "He had decent velocity -- above average," said the Brewers' centerfielder. "I only saw two pitches all night -- the fastball and changeup. I haven't seen him enough to know if that's his norm."
The last thing in the world the Orioles want to do is transform McDonald into an off-speed pitcher. But they want to get him to the point where batters realize they are sometimes going to have to swing at something other than a fastball.
Until he gets to that point, McDonald is laboring with the task of having to throw as hard as he can with near perfect location. And that's almost impossible regardless of the velocity of the pitch.