McDonald is already healthy step ahead

April 10, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

This is the way it was supposed to be Opening Day a year ago.

Remember?

Ben McDonald stifling the opposition, en route to the first of many victories. The Orioles being opportunistic enough to scratch out enough runs to win.

That's the way it was supposed to be, but the master plan ended up at the recycling center about the same time McDonald wound up on the disabled list. The staff lost its ace even earlier than the Orioles lost any semblance of a contender.

Last night McDonald gave a crowd of 42,646 a glimpse of what the past might have been like -- and what the future may hold. The 6-foot-7 righthander mesmerized the Cleveland Indians on two hits while pitching the third shutout of his career, and the second for the home team in the three-game series that inaugurated Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

But, for those inclined to think the Orioles saw the real McDonald for the first time last night, there is both a reminder and a caution. This isn't the first time the 24-year-old has performed at such a lofty level. Neither does it mean that the so-called "pressure" that supposedly suppressed his talents is a thing of the past.

The fact is that the difference between the McDonald everyone expected and the one who has alternated between brilliance and mediocrity the last two years can be traced to injuries. He opened each of the last two years on the disabled list, missing most of the first half of each season.

Even manager John Oates, who has gone out of his way to reduce expectations, admits as much. "There's no doubt that injuries have stunted his growth as a major-league pitcher," said Oates, who has McDonald cleverly hidden in the middle of his starting rotation.

There is, however, no hiding McDonald's obvious potential to be an impact pitcher. "Let's put his whole spring together," said Oates, counting back to the start of the exhibition season.

"This was his seventh start -- and they've all been very consistent. He pitched against Boston twice when they had all their big boys in there. And that's a pretty good lineup."

It hardly mattered that McDonald squeezed major-league hitters like overripe grapefruits in Florida, he was going to be no better than No. 3 in Oates' rotation to start the season. The idea was to deflect the spotlight, not to curtail the ability.

At the same time, the manager went to great pains not to ruffle any feelings, if indeed there were any to be ruffled after last year's 95-loss fiasco.

Oates started Bob Milacki ahead of McDonald in deference to last year's only 10-game winner. He started McDonald ahead of Mike Mussina (who faces Toronto today) in deference to his ranking as the senior No. 1 pick on the pitching staff.

And, just to keep everything in perspective, he started Rick Sutcliffe ahead of everybody and inserted Jose Mesa into the fifth slot. If you look closely at the spring training performances of the five starters, it's almost as if Oates decided to "back in" to his starting rotation.

Sutcliffe, who shut out the Indians by the same 2-0 score on Opening Day, had the highest earned run average (3.60) among the starters. Milacki (3.54) was next, followed by McDonald (1.89), Mussina (1.73) and Mesa (0.00). Oates could have reversed the order without much argument -- and McDonald still would have been No. 3.

"Actually," Oates said with a wry smile when the last-shall-be-first theory was presented to him, "I went by seniority -- at least with the first four."

However he did it, Oates has managed to push the right buttons thus far. His pitching staff came out of spring training with a team ERA of 2.73 -- but there was still pressure to maintain once the season started. Spring training, after all, is still only spring training.

"I never thought it was a fluke," Oates said of his staff's performance during the exhibition season. "I wasn't getting excited about the results -- I was getting excited based on what I saw.

"I saw guys throwing 90 miles-per-hour and getting breaking balls over the plate for strikes," he said. "The bottom line is our pitchers have been pitching well."

But nobody has yet been as overpowering as McDonald was last night. "Awesome," said Bill Ripken, who watched with admiration from second base. "He was nasty."

Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove, whose starter Jack Armstrong only allowed an RBI single by Joe Orsulak and a solo home run by Mike Devereaux, echoed the McDonald sentiment. "When you get a guy throwing 98 miles-per-hour, it's going to be a long night," said Hargrove, exaggerating McDonald's speed somewhat.

"His velocity had to be up there, and he had a hard curveball to go with it. When you run into pitching like that you've got to get lucky," said Hargrove.

McDonald's curve was so dominating that he rarely fell behind in the count and walked only one. He also matched his career-high of nine strikeouts. "It seems my curve is either great or very inconsistent," said McDonald. "Tonight I had a good one right from the start -- I had it warming up in the bullpen."

But, as spectacular as it was, this game didn't produce anything the Orioles haven't seen before. All it did was serve as a reminder as to why McDonald was the highest rated player in the history of the major-league scouting combine, which has been in existence for more than 25 years.

Last night may not have been a realistic glimpse of the past, or an accurate barometer for the future. But it wasn't bad for the No. 3 starter on a team that had the highest ERA in the big leagues only a year ago.

After three games, the Orioles already have as many complete-game shutouts (two) as they had all last year. The last time the Orioles pitched two shutouts in the same series was 1985 (Mike Boddicker and Storm Davis against Seattle). And Oriole Park at Camden Yards has yet to see a game other than a shutout (the Indians beat Milacki, 4-0, in the second game).

The season's only three games old, and already strange things are happening. For the Orioles, that's good news.

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