Ben McDonald didn't know it at the time, but five pitches into last night's game he had no chance to win.
At that point the Orioles didn't know what to expect either. The hot dogs weren't even warm and Toronto already had a two-run lead en route to a 3-0 win.
"Hindsight is always perfect," said Orioles manager John Oates, "but you wonder what might have happened if you could go back and mix up a few of those pitches.
"He threw a fastball to [Devon] White, two fastballs to [Roberto] Alomar, a curve to [Joe] Carter for a ball, then another fastball," said Oates. The result: two singles, a double and two runs. It sounded like the same old complaint -- too many fastballs, poor location, no off-speed pitches for strikes etc., etc., etc.
That lament has been heard so often this year it's become boring. And, perhaps, much too simple.
But something happened after the double by Carter (he was thrown out going to third on the play). It was as if McDonald threw a switch that put the Blue Jays into the off position.
From that point on, McDonald was dominating, before leaving after eight innings with a cramp in his right forearm that was not believed to be serious. He threw strikes almost automatically. He overpowered hitters, freezing them with curveballs and locking them up with fastballs.
"That was good," said Orioles pitching coach Al Jackson. "That was real good.
"He got into a groove like I've never seen him in before," Jackson said of McDonald, whose season has been dotted by injuries and disappointments. "Fastballs, curveballs, changeups . . . he had command of them all. He got everything over the plate. It's a sign that he's pointed in the right direction. He's still got a lot of work to do, but he's getting there."
McDonald struck out eight (one in each inning he worked), gave up one intentional walk and allowed six hits after the first three batters. His velocity was the best it's been all year, and he showed an ability to get a ground ball or a strikeout when needed.
In the fourth inning, McDonald struck out Kelly Gruber and got Rance Mulliniks to hit into a double play after John Olerud and Candy Maldonado opened with consecutive singles. In the eighth, with a runner on third, one out, and the infield in, he induced Carter to hit a ground ball that resulted in an out at the plate. Then he struck out Maldonado for the third time with a wicked curveball. It was an impressive finish for his evening.
"Other than the consistency for seven straight innings, that was the most exciting thing I saw out there tonight," said Oates. "The ability to get through the eighth inning without giving up that run is something that we've been missing.
"If he throws a high fastball there [to Carter], we probably don't keep that run from scoring. But he threw the ball down, with something on it."
McDonald and the Orioles had no chance, however, because Tom Candiotti (11-11) allowed only one hit and retired the last 22 batters he faced. Ironically, the only hit came in the first inning off the bat of Joe Orsulak, who the night before missed a chance to tie a club record by going hitless after connecting safely in 21 straight games.
With the Orioles having been swept by the first-place Blue Jays while scoring only three runs (one unearned) in three games, McDonald (5-8) was about all Oates could talk about. He did it with an eye to the future, while reflecting on the reality of the past.
"What we saw tonight was 20-win stuff," said Oates. "If he takes that out there three out of four or four out of five times, he's going to win 20 games."
McDonald has shown only rare flashes of his near-brilliance of a year ago, when he was 8-5 with a 2.43 earned run average after starting the season on the disabled list. But Oates insisted there were positive signs before the big righthander turned in his most impressive performance of the year.
"You could see this coming," said Oates. "He's been making strides the last four or five times out there, getting a little closer each time. He was getting a little more consistent each time he went out there."
The Toronto hits in the first inning were hardly robust -- a ground ball between first and second, a flare to left-centerfield and the "wrong-way" double by Carter. "He had good stuff from the very first hitter," said Jackson.
Before he established a pitch other than his fastball, McDonald was behind by two runs. But the fact that three straight hits didn't set the tone for the night, the fact that he took charge of what could have been a disastrous situation, the fact that he threw 90 strikes in 130 pitches, and the fact that a good many of those pitches bordered on being unhittable, helped make this a special game for McDonald.
That's the first step. The next step is to display the consistency expected of a potential No. 1 starter. "Watching what he did, you know what he's capable of doing," said Oates.
There is, however, a big step left. "He's shown that he's capable of being a No. 1 [starter]," said Oates. "But you can't be a No. 1 if you do it one out of three times.
"You've got to do it four out of five times, that's how you get to be No. 1."
McDonald did it often enough last year to earn the No. 1 spot going into this season. Now, he's in the process of having to prove himself all over again.