OAKLAND, Calif. -- Three years ago, about the time Ben McDonald was signed with the hope he would eventually take the job, Bob Milacki became the workhorse of the Orioles' pitching staff.
Although Jeff Ballard was 18-8 that year, it was Milacki who stepped up as the No. 1 stopper late in the season. He went 9-3 during the last two months of that magical 1989 season.
The big righthander won his last five decisions and the Orioles won each of his last seven outings. In the process, Milacki became the first rookie in 71 years to lead the American League in starts (tied with Dave Stewart and Mark Gubicza with 36).
The Orioles had visions of a solid pitching staff for the 1990s being anchored by McDonald and Milacki, a pair of formidable stoppers. But it didn't happen overnight, as planned.
McDonald's tribulations have been well documented, but in a sense Milacki became the forgotten man with the emergence of Mike Mussina and the arrival of Rick Sutcliffe. Along with Jose Mesa, he was shuffled to a back burner as manager John Oates worked a rotation around his top three starters.
Gradually and quietly, however, Milacki has been working his way back to a position of prominence. And when he puts a personal three-game winning streak on the line against the Oakland A's here tonight (10:35, Channel 2), he'll be in a situation remindful of those he faced as a rookie three years ago.
Since then he has had to overcome a shoulder injury (1990) and a bad experimental experience in spring training that temporarily returned him to the minor leagues (1991) before patiently waiting his turn this year. To his credit, Milacki never let the setbacks become more than minor distractions.
"He's got a lot of confidence in himself," said pitching coach Dick Bosman. "He knew that he would emerge -- that he would get through this.
"It's to his credit that he's worked hard, spent the time necessary to straighten out the ship."
Even with all of the distractions, such as spending the first month at Double-A Hagerstown and not making his first start until May 20 last year, Milacki still managed to lead the 1991 Orioles in wins (10), innings (184) and starts (26).
Those numbers, however, were more a reflection of the Orioles' dismal pitching staff a year ago than Milacki's ability. If he was going to lead the staff in those categories, it was envisioned it would be with much better numbers.
Milacki's figures going into tonight's game remain far from spectacular. His 4-2 record tends to overshadow a 4.83 earned run average and 78 baserunners (60 hits, 18 walks) in 50 1/3 innings.
But the Orioles see indications that Milacki is approaching the form he first displayed four years ago, when he went 12-8 with a 2.70 ERA at Triple-A Rochester and then made a sensational big-league debut (one run allowed in 25 innings in three starts).
"I see more velocity with his fastball, and better location with all of his pitches -- especially his slider," said Oates, who also had Milacki on his staff at Rochester in 1988. The occasional disappearance of the slider and a cutback in velocity have been the most noticeable differences to Oates.
"I think he got away from his slider a little bit," said Oates. "And sometimes he throws harder than other times because he gets a better hip turn [during the delivery], rather than rushing forward."
Milacki has tried to counter his [until now] once-a-week schedule by doing more work between starts. "I've just been throwing more," he said. "Instead of throwing once [between starts] I've been throwing every other day."
He feels that the extra work on the sidelines has helped him with the slider. "I've been more consistent with it [the last three games]," said Milacki, who admitted the pitch hasn't been as prominent in the last two years. "I wasn't using it very much against lefthanded hitters, and most of the lineups I face have a lot of lefthanders," he said. "I was relying mostly on my fastball, curve and changeup."
It's unusual for a pitcher to have two good breaking pitches in any given game, and Milacki is no exception. "Some days I'll have a real good curveball, so I'll stay with it," he said.
Over the long haul, though, Oates feels the hard slider is the key pitch for Milacki.
Tonight Milacki will test that pitch against an Oakland team that has suddenly hit the skids. The A's, who fell out of first place last night, are coming off a three-game sweep by the lowly Cleveland Indians and have been devastated by injuries.
Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco and Dave Henderson, the A's starting outfield, are all questionable this weekend. Dave
Henderson is eligible to come off the disabled list after a pulled hamstring, but is still listed as day-to-day.
Canseco, who missed the Cleveland series with a sore shoulder, and Rickey Henderson, who left Wednesday's game with a strained hamstring, are also on the "iffy" list.
Canseco, who has been in a prolonged slump despite having nine home runs, said he will return to the lineup tonight. Rickey Henderson wasn't so sure, saying only that he hoped to play before the weekend is over.
After the way the A's swept a three-game series in Baltimore 10 days ago, anybody missing from the Oakland lineup would benefit the Orioles, who have lost seven of their last 10.