Orioles starting to shut out memories of Tibbs, Dixon, Smith...

Ken Rosenthal

April 10, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

Someone's playing a joke, right?

These can't be the Orioles.

C'mon, where's Jeff Robinson? What happened to Jose Bautista? Who's hiding Jay Tibbs?

The new ballpark is one thing.

The new starting rotation is ridiculous.

Yes, it's early. Yes, it was only Cleveland. But two complete-game shutouts in the same series? This team hadn't done it since August 1985. Mike Boddicker and Storm Davis. The good old days.

What's the catch?

Where's Ken Dixon?

Rick Sutcliffe threw a five-hitter Opening Day. Ben McDonald threw a two-hitter last night. Mike Mussina starts in Toronto this afternoon.

Superstition be damned.

Mussina will throw a no-hitter.

"How are we going to top a two-hitter?" Sutcliffe shouted at McDonald last night. "You could have thrown a four-hitter. Then Moose [Mussina] could have slid in with a three."

Can you imagine?

"We want to let our offense know we've got the ability to shut people out," Sutcliffe said, turning deathly serious. "And we don't want to pressure the bullpen."

Shut people out?

Honor thy bullpen?

Where does the madness end?

Manager Johnny Oates calls his starters the "Joes," as if they're five regular guys with beer bellies the Orioles signed off the sandlots.

Underdog teams always concoct such myths, and Oates devised this one to benefit McDonald, who has gone from the second coming of Christy Mathewson to lunchpail status in record time.

Let's nip this in the bud.

Big Ben is no ordinary Joe, and Oates knows it.

"He was a pretty good Joe tonight," Oates said, beaming.

Indeed, for all the talk of the reduced pressure on McDonald this season, he figures to make dramatic improvement mainly because he's healthy.

As he put it, "Last year was hell."

The McDonald who resurfaced last night was the same McDonald we saw in the second half of 1990. He retired all but three hitters and his final 13, tying his career-high with nine strikeouts and walking only one.

Remember the wicked curveball McDonald threw at LSU and as a rookie? It returned as his strikeout pitch last night. His fastball was just as sharp. He showed his changeup only twice.

That will change, and before it's over, McDonald might unveil his forkball too. But the curve is the first step. It flattens when McDonald drops his arm to the side, but when he uses the same overhand release point as his fastball, look out.

McDonald, 24, has worked only 261 1/3 major-league innings -- fewer than Roger Clemens last year -- so he's still learning his craft. The good news is, he's showing progress. Take last night's fourth inning, when Glenallen Hill singled and stole second with none out.

It helped when Chris Hoiles, atoning for his costly catcher's interference the previous night, blocked a curveball in the dirt to prevent Hill from advancing to third, ultimately saving a run.

It also helped when Carlos Baerga swung at ball four and flied to center for the first out. But McDonald recovered to retire Albert Belle and Paul Sorrento on ground outs, and the rest was easy.

The crowd of 42,646 stood roaring as he struck out Baerga on three pitches for the final out, and McDonald pumped his fist the same way he did after shutting out Chicago in his major-league debut in '90.

Through it all, Sutcliffe sat in the dugout guessing pitches with Mussina and Bob Milacki, the same way Jim Palmer once did with Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor.

Milacki allowed two home runs in Wednesday's 4-0 loss, but this stuff gets contagious. The two complete-game shutouts already match the Orioles' total from '91.

Last year closer Gregg Olson couldn't get a save because the starters always made such a mess. This year he can't get a save because the starters finish so neatly.

"They keep throwing like that," Olson said, "and I'll wait until the World Series."

Someone's playing a joke, right?

Where's Roy Smith?

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