PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- To this point Ben McDonald's career has been on hold, trapped between high expectations and damaging injuries.
The big righthander knows he hasn't lived up to advance billing. He also knows there isn't anything he can do about the past and that some people are inclined to question his future.
"I know the critics say 'he's not what he's supposed to be' -- and it's going to be like that," McDonald said after his second straight impressive exhibition outing here yesterday. The Orioles lost for the second straight day, a 2-1 decision to the Texas Rangers, but the pitching, especially the starters, continued to impress.
In two games McDonald has pitched five innings and faced the minimum of 15 batters. He gave up one single in three innings yesterday and then immediately threw a double-play ball to erase the runner.
A year ago the performance would've been hailed as the next step toward greatness. Now it ranks as just another meaningless exhibition outing, the second step in preparation for the regular season.
No longer is anyone counting on McDonald to anchor the pitching staff, though it would be a mistake to dismiss the possibility. He's not penciled in to pitch Opening Day, and it's a virtual certainty he will not draw that assignment.
Right now Orioles manager John Oates is counting on McDonald as his No. 2 or No. 3 starter. If he pitches to his considerable potential and doesn't rise above that rank, then Oates will have a solid starting rotation.
In the meantime, a year older and considerably wiser, McDonald is going through what he hopes will be his first complete spring training. Two years ago he almost made it before a freak hip injury in his last appearance put him on the disabled list.
Last year, a strained elbow put him on the sidelines two weeks before the season opened.
There wasn't any particular significance to McDonald's performance yesterday -- except for the circumstances. It was during his second exhibition start a year ago, in the same park against the same pitcher (Bobby Witt), that McDonald's arm problems began. It was a rainy, damp, cold day and the nation's No. 1 draft choice in 1989 labored through more than 90 pitches.
There were heavy overnight rains in the area the night before, and the similarities were almost eerie. "Was it here that I pitched in the rain last year?" McDonald said, tongue-in-cheek, when a fan reminded him.
McDonald claimed to have put that experience out of his mind. "Positive thinking," he explained, using pitching coach Dick Bosman's favorite expression.
But even if he had forgotten, those around him were quick to remind him of a possible deja vu. "A couple of guys brought it up," said McDonald. Among them was Bosman, who has emphasized that the pitchers can't dwell on 1991.
"This is a different year," said McDonald. "When I woke up it wasn't raining, but the wind was howling. But it turned out to be a pretty nice day -- the sun came out and the wind died down."
And there was also a big difference in McDonald's pitch count yesterday. Although he was on a 50-pitch limit, he left after the third inning despite having thrown only 31 pitches. "At this point I'd rather him be in the low 30s than the low 40s," said manager John Oates. "He's got plenty of time to build it up."
Preparing for the season away from the glare of the spotlight has been a welcome diversion for McDonald. But that probably won't help him nearly as much as a development that took place during the offseason.
The way McDonald figures, the addition of Rick Sutcliffe will have much the same effect on Orioles starters as Mike Flanagan had on the relievers last year.
"I think it'll be big," McDonald said when asked how much he thought Sutcliffe would help the rest of the rotation. "The relievers have Flanny to talk to in the bullpen and now, to have Rick sit next to us and talk about pitching and hitters -- that's big.
"Whatever I go through, or whatever Mike [Mussina] or Bob [Milacki] go through -- Rick has been there. He's seen it all and done it all. And he's one of those guys who has a lot of awareness."
As for himself, McDonald is more than pleased with what has transpired so far this spring. "I felt real strong," he said after yesterday's game.
"My changeup could've been better, but the curveball came around at the end, and the fastball was good. The one thing I'm not comfortable with right now is pitching out of the stretch. I just haven't worked enough out of it yet."
That, of course, is because McDonald has allowed only one base-runner -- and he was on base for only one pitch. "If I have to, I'll just pitch out of the stretch in some games down here just to get more comfortable," he said.
Oates got a chuckle out of that. "I hope he pitches so well that's the only time he has to pitch out of the stretch," said the manager.
This time a year ago, McDonald had a lot more to worry about than getting comfortable while pitching with men on base. He woke up the morning after his second game with what he thought was "normal spring training soreness" in his elbow.
He waited two more starts before going public with the discomfort. "And then I was anxious to get back and tried to come back too soon," he said.
It's a mistake he won't make again. "If I woke up the next day and felt like that, I'd go to them right away," said McDonald.
He attributed last year's difficulties to the fact that he'd never had a sore arm before. "Everybody has told me that the first time you experience arm trouble you think the world is coming to an end -- and I did. It's part of experience -- I learned the hard way."
And now Ben McDonald is concentrating on getting his career out of neutral and into high gear.