The Orioles won't have any trouble justifying the expected firing of pitching coach Al Jackson at the end of the season. But nine strong innings by Ben McDonald last night served as a healthy reminder that baseball scapegoats are rarely as culpable as they seem.
McDonald altered his windup in the Orioles' 5-4 victory over Chicago in 11 innings, keeping his hands at his chest instead of raising them over his head. The idea was his own, but he said Jackson first suggested the change last season, as a way of disguising pitches.
Back then McDonald didn't require an adjustment; this season, of course, has been another story. He experimented with the more compact delivery between starts. And last night he became the first Orioles pitcher to work nine innings since May 17, when he did it against California.
The irony of all this is that Pete Harnisch made the same change at Jackson's urging last season, only to abandon it after getting traded to Houston. Harnisch (6-8) is now third in the NL with a 2.40 ERA, and he credits his All-Star season, in part, to his return to the hands-over-head motion.
That's an indirect slap at both Jackson and former manager Frank Robinson, but Jackson insists such a change doesn't have to be permanent. McDonald, like Harnisch before him, is trying to develop his rhythm and become more consistent. By keeping his hands down, he's going back to basics, nothing more.
"Once you get into it, you can go stand on your head if you want," Jackson said after McDonald allowed all four Chicago runs on five hits last night. "I have nothing against what Pete said. I wish him all the luck in the world. But he wasn't going in the right direction the way he was."
Harnisch, 24, finished 11-11 with a 4.34 ERA last season, and his saga should be an inspiration to McDonald (5-6, 5.15). Like many top young pitchers, he struggled before finally realizing success. Atlanta's Tom Glavine and Steve Avery could relate. So could California's Jim Abbott, Toronto's Todd Stottlemyre and last night's White Sox starter, Jack McDowell.
Oh, there are exceptions -- Scott Erickson is one, Ramon Martinez another -- but the true measure of McDonald's ability might not come until next season. By then he will have pitched more than 250 major-league innings. By then his confidence should be restored. And by then Jackson almost certainly will be gone.
The extent to which Jackson is to blame for McDonald's slow development and the Orioles' major-league high 4.77 ERA is anyone's guess. It's difficult to assess a pitching coach when four inadequate veterans -- Jeff Robinson, Jeff Ballard, Dave Johnson and Roy Smith -- have started 61 of 111 games.
McDonald, the No. 1 pick in the '89 draft, has made two trips to the disabled list. Three of the club's four original starters (Robinson, Ballard and Jose Mesa) are at Triple A. Top prospect Arthur Rhodes is expected to join the rotation shortly, replacing either Johnson or Smith.
For some inexplicable reason, John Oates doesn't even know if he's returning as manager next season, so he's in no position to comment on next year's staff. Still, Jackson clearly is in trouble, if for no other reason than Oates almost certainly will want his own man.
Oates, a former coach himself, grasps the inherent unfairness of what is taking place. "Very few coaches get credit when players do well," he said. "But a whole lot of coaches get blamed when players do poorly."
The primary rap against Jackson is that the young pitchers haven't improved since he left the New York Mets as a roving minor-league instructor to join the Orioles in 1989. It's a difficult point to argue, yet McDonald and most of the others have few complaints.
"Certainly he's been helpful," McDonald said. "For a young guy like myself, he's made some good points, corrected me on some things. I think he can help lefthanders better than righthanders -- he was a lefthanded pitcher. But I think 'Jack' definitely knows pitching. He helps every guy in certain ways."
Last night Jackson surely derived satisfaction as McDonald spotted his 93-mph fastball, threw breaking balls for strikes, even mixed in a dozen changeups. The majority of his six strikeouts came on high fastballs, but McDonald said that was by design. When he missed with his fastball, it was low. That was encouraging.
Oates said a strikeout pitch to Ron Kittle had such good location, "he could have put it in a Dixie cup." McDonald even gambled with a changeup on a 3-2 count to Frank Thomas. Not great selection -- Thomas hit a game-winning homer off a Mike Mussina changeup last week -- but at least McDonald was bold enough to throw the pitch.
He's getting there. The Orioles would be foolish to repeat their mistake and expect him to anchor their staff next season. But the list of free-agent pitchers isn't particularly inspiring, and most clubs won't trade quality starters. Right now the projected 1992 rotation consists of McDonald, Mussina, Mesa, Rhodes and Bob Milacki.
Not a bad group -- if they all perform to potential. But that's a familiar refrain, especially for this team. No doubt, the Orioles can make a strong case for dismissing their pitching coach. But the pitching coach can argue, just as convincingly, that he never had a chance.