The message to the Orioles' starting pitchers this year has been simple, subtle -- and unannounced.
Nobody has harped on the theory that you finish what you start. That is unheard of in an age of relief specialists.
But being prepared, mentally and physically, for the duration is obviously a big part of the game plan. And, for the first time in several years, the Orioles appear to be well armed for the long haul.
Consider the early evidence:
* Last night's 6-2 win over the Minnesota Twins was the third complete game of the year (in six starts) for Ben McDonald. His previous career total (in 36 starts) was four.
* It was the Orioles' seventh complete game of the young season. A year ago Bob Milacki recorded the club's seventh complete game on Sept. 9 and Mike Mussina got the eighth (and last) one week later.
* At their current pace, Orioles starters will pitch 168 more innings than they did a year ago (900). That's more innings than any starter except Milacki (184) -- and nearly as many as any two relievers compiled last season.
* In 1991 the Orioles used 12 starters and only four of them were able to register complete games. Three of five have done so this year -- and two of them (McDonald and Rick Sutcliffe) have already matched Milacki's team-leading total (three) from last year.
Those are dramatically different numbers. They are also an indication that the Orioles are pushing for their starters to escape the six-inning mentality trap that has seemingly permeated baseball in recent years.
"Complete games aren't important to me," said manager John Oates, "but I want them to go out there with the mentality that 'it's my job to pitch nine innings.' "
Oates doesn't try to hide the fact that was a big reason he pushed hard for the signing of free agent Rick Sutcliffe during the offseason. He felt the veteran could show the young starters how to finish a tough game.
Another veteran, Mike Flanagan, who knows the regimen of a starter but now works in relief, feels that move has been instrumental in the Orioles' early success.
"He [Sutcliffe] tries to downplay it, but I think he's made a big difference," said Flanagan, who was credited with playing a similar role in the bullpen last year. "They [the other starters] can feed off him.
"There's always going to be friendly competition. You want the other guys to pitch well, and you want to hold up your end. I know when Scotty [McGregor, his former lefthanded teammate] went out and pitched a five-hitter, it helped me.
"What you need is to have two or three guys who can go out and make it look easy -- that's when you can really feed off each other," said Flanagan.
What Oates wants is for his starters to maximize their ability.
"I want them to know they're capable of pitching 200 innings [in a season] -- that 150 isn't enough," he said. "I'm not going to extend them or let them labor, but I want them prepared to finish what they start.
"If you have five guys who can only go six innings, you'll wear out your bullpen," said Oates.
"I think we need to get used to that [pitching complete games]," said McDonald (4-0). "There are going to be times when we have to go out and do that to give the bullpen a rest. We wore out the bullpen last year.
"I think all of us want to go out and pitch as much as we can. That's the most satisfaction -- pitching nine innings."
McDonald went the distance last night despite some early control problems and the fact his curveball didn't get a wake-up call until the middle of the game. He gave up a couple of eighth-inning home runs (Shane Mack and Kirby Puckett), which in the past might have signaled his departure.
"But when the quality of his stuff is still that good, why change?" asked pitching coach Dick Bosman. "I'm trying to build some thoroughbreds here. We're building endurance.
"It's like training racehorses -- if you prepare them for a mile race and then run them at a mile and a half, that last half mile isn't going to be very good. They [the starters] are working hard -- they've got great stuff on their workout days," said Bosman.
McDonald, who has benefited from solid offensive support (an average of eight runs) in his six starts, last night ran his personal winning streak to five, dating back to last year. He had a 5-0 lead after four innings, thanks mainly to Brady Anderson, who continued his hot tear with two singles and a home run.