WASHINGTON -- The expectations are more realistic, the pressure less intense. For Ben McDonald, this was a spring training to enjoy, not to endure.
It's the difference a veteran like Rick Sutcliffe makes on the Orioles pitching staff. And the difference that Bob Milacki, Mike Mussina and Jose Mesa make as a group.
"I feel it less this year than it's ever been," McDonald said after the Orioles dropped their final exhibition game of the spring, 4-3, to the Boston Red Sox before 20,551 at RFK Stadium yesterday.
"Last year all the pressure fell on my shoulders. This year it's different. Sutcliffe is here, Mussina is throwing well, Milacki is throwing well, Mesa is throwing well. Now, I've got to win my games, but the other guys have got to win theirs."
A year ago, McDonald, the No. 1 pick in the 1989 free-agent draft, was on the disabled list with a strained right elbow. It was the second straight year the right-handed pitcher started on the disabled list.
When he came back, he was never quite able to find a comfortable groove. He finished the year the way he had started it, in pain -- with a shoulder injury -- and frustration.
That was reflected in his disappointing 6-8 record and 4.84 ERA. "In 21 starts, I pitched through a lot of soreness and pain," he said.
This spring, manager John Oates wanted to remove the burden of expectation from McDonald. To that end, he has seemingly succeeded.
"I said: 'Ben McDonald, you could win 30 games and we'd still finish in last place. Relax and enjoy yourself. Let your talents work for you. You could pitch a no-hitter and it would only count as one win for us,' " Oates said.
"I didn't want him to feel our success was dependent only on him."
McDonald, 24, went five innings in his final tuneup before making his first regular-season start on Thursday at home against the Cleveland Indians. He started strong yesterday, but struggled in the raw, chilly weather of RFK.
He faced nine batters in his first three innings, giving up one hit, a leadoff single to Wade Boggs. He gave up an unearned run in the fourth, then was tagged for four straight hits in the fifth, when the Red Sox scored twice to tie the game at 3.
The Orioles had taken a 3-0 lead in the second when Leo Gomez hit his second home run of the spring, 10 rows past the 23-foot high wall in shallow left field, 265 feet from home plate.
"Ben had good velocity, but he struggled with the curveball," Oates said. "That's usually the case on a cold day like that. He basically pitched with a fastball and changeup."
McDonald said he did not throw his new pitch, the forkball, because of the trouble he had spotting the curveball.
"My fastball was better than it's been," he said. "I wanted to cut loose. I'd like to be consistent with my first three pitches. The curveball is my second pitch, and I need it to be consistent. I will throw the forkball on the side and keep working with it. When I'm consistent with it, I'll bring it in a game."
New pitching coach Dick Bosman made a trip to McDonald's hometown of Denham Springs, La., in December to emphasize mechanics and the need to throw strikes with the curveball and changeup.
That led to McDonald's coming to Baltimore to work out with Milacki and Mike Flanagan, among others. And that, Bosman said, "acted as a springboard" for his stellar performance in spring training.
In six starts and 24 innings, McDonald went 3-0 this spring, giving up 23 hits and six earned runs. Opposing batters hit .256 against him.
"He might be farther along than I expected," Bosman said. "I've seen a lot of good changeups and curveballs, a lot of strikes. He's been ahead in the count."
Bosman also emphasized the need for McDonald to feel like one of the guys, not the guy all eyes looked to.
"Part of it is making him one of the boys," Bosman said. "Instead of standing him on a pedestal, he's one of our starting pitchers. He's the third starter now. He's entitled to all the problems, all the injuries that anybody else is."
The Orioles closed out their spring training season at 17-11, their first winning spring since they went 15-12 in 1984.
Gregg Olson was yesterday's losing pitcher, giving up an opposite-field single in the ninth to Phil Plantier that broke the 3-3 tie. The earned run was his first of the spring, and he finished with a 1-2 record in eight games. He pitched 8 2/3 innings, gave up seven hits and five runs, and had six strikeouts and nine walks.
Oates said he was satisfied with what the team had accomplished.
"I'm satisfied with what the players did," he said. "But there's a lot of work to be done yet."