ARLINGTON, Texas -- Ben McDonald introduced a new wrinkle Saturday night that is likely to be a staple of his pitching repertoire.
The slider is not a completely new pitch for McDonald, but is one that the right-hander has been nursing along for the past four months.
"I'm still learning how to throw it and still learning how to get outs with it," McDonald said a day after his two-hit, 7-0 shutout over the Texas Rangers.
"We started with it in spring training," said pitching coach Dick Bosman, "and little by little Ben is getting the hang of it. I think it can be a big pitch for him."
Manager Johnny Oates has a similar feeling, though McDonald doesn't think the slider will have as big an impact as his manager believes. "Johnny thinks it [the slider] will eventually surpass my curveball, but I'm not so sure about that," said McDonald.
"He brought the slider out three games ago, and it's getting there," said Oates. "He's getting used to throwing it in game situations."
Although the addition of a breaking pitch gives opposing hitters something else to think about, it was only a contributing factor, not a dominant one, in McDonald's powerful performance against the Rangers.
It was his control of a sinking fastball, especially early in the game, that set up everything else. For the first three innings, McDonald was basically a one-pitch pitcher. During that stretch he threw only one curveball and one changeup for strikes -- and in the third inning he threw nothing but fastballs.
"We were pretty basic in the early innings," said catcher Jeff Tackett. "His curveball was in the dirt, but he was able to throw the sinker for strikes."
The Rangers are a free-swinging, fastball-hitting team and, like Mike Mussina the night before, McDonald used that to his advantage. Of the 29 batters he faced, only 10 saw strikes on the first pitch, and he pitched from behind in the count more than you would suspect during a shutout.
Those are the kind of situations where McDonald has been hurt in the past, yet Saturday night his control actually was an asset. He walked only one and hit one while facing only two hitters more than the minimum, as Mussina had done in his one-hitter Friday night.
"Even though I was behind a lot, I felt like I had such good control of my fastball that I could throw it where I wanted any time in the count," said McDonald.
It wasn't until the fourth inning that McDonald started throwing breaking pitches for strikes. By the fifth inning, when he used the slider for the first time, McDonald had both the curve and the slider consistently in the strike zone.
"Eventually I think the slider is going to be a good pitch for me," said McDonald. "Actually it doesn't have much break to it and is almost like a 'cut' fastball."
Bosman figures the slider will benefit McDonald mostly because it is an easier pitch to control. "The strike zone is not that big," he said, "and eventually I think he'll get to the point where he'll be able to throw it whenever he wants."
How often that will be most likely will depend on how effective McDonald's curveball is from game to game. "When I get a lot of strikeouts, it's usually when I have a good curve," he said.
McDonald struck out only five Saturday night -- but three of them came after breaking pitches became a factor in the fifth inning. He also got a double play that ended the seventh inning with a slider he threw to Juan Gonzalez.
Saturday night was one of the few times this season that McDonald made effective use of four pitches. He threw a dozen changeups in addition to 25 curves and six sliders among his 123 pitches.
Still, one thing can't be overlooked -- McDonald's trademark pitch was the one he relied on before the others came into play. It was his use, and command, of the fastball early in the game that put all of the pieces in order.
Once McDonald got the fastball established as a consistent out pitch, the Rangers found themselves in a game of multiple-choice -- and were overmatched.