McDonald's head start raises some questions

July 29, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- More than a few people left Yankee Stadium last night convinced the game they had just seen was decided in the third inning. Apparently none of them, however, was wearing a uniform during the Orioles' 5-2 win over the Yankees.

It was during the third inning that Ben McDonald stamped the batting helmet of Matt Nokes with a 93-mph fastball. Those involved think it was coincidence, but it's no secret that the Yankees' offense disintegrated shortly thereafter.

But, while the Yankees think there's at least reason to suspect McDonald might have been throwing at Nokes, there was no inclination to blame (or credit) the incident for what followed.

"Under the circumstances, I think it's questionable," Yankees manager Buck Showalter said, when asked if he thought McDonald might have been throwing at Nokes. "That's something only the pitcher knows."

There were certainly enough circumstances present to create suspicion. The Yankees had just taken a 2-1 lead, the count was 0-and-2 with two outs and nobody on base -- and Nokes had just hit a long drive into the upper deck, but foul by a considerable margin.

In addition, there was the memory of Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles being hit with a suspicious pitch by the Yankees' Tim Leary and suffering a broken wrist more than five weeks ago. But if he thought this was a retaliatory measure, Showalter hid his feelings.

"That [Hoiles' injury] didn't cross my mind," the Yankees manager said.

For his part, McDonald denied any ill intent. He admitted the Hoiles incident entered his mind -- but only after Nokes was lying still at home plate.

"I definitely wasn't thinking about it going into the game," said McDonald. "But it did cross my mind after it happened. We've had some guys hit, and I worried that it might happen again."

The remainder of the game was incident-free -- except for the emergence of McDonald as a dominant force. All nine of his strikeouts, and only two of the Yankees' eight hits, came after Nokes was beaned.

Last night's victory kept the Orioles four games behind in the AL East to Toronto, which handled Kansas City, 6-4. The Birds gained a game on Milwaukee in the second-place battle when Cleveland took a 4-2 win over the Brewers.

Showalter halted any conversation intimating that Nokes getting hit had anything to do with his club's performance. "He has good stuff," said Showalter. "He doesn't have to hit somebody in the head to convince people he's got good stuff."

After hitting Nokes, who left the game immediately and the stadium before the contest was concluded, McDonald appeared take charge. He struck out the next hitter, Charlie Hayes, and six of the next nine he faced.

When the Orioles gave him a 3-2 lead in the top of the fifth, McDonald protected it vigorously. "I thought the fourth inning was about the time that he started using his slider and making some good pitches," said Orioles manager Johnny Oates, who defused the notion that there had been any intent behind the pitch to Nokes.

"You cringe when that happens -- whether it's one of your players or somebody from the other side," said Oates. "Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Ben grab his head when that happened. I'm sure it shook him up."

McDonald admitted he was trying to come inside "hard" when he hit Nokes. "I've been hurt in there a lot, when I didn't come in far enough and throw hard enough," he said.

"I was trying to set him up for a pitch away to get him out. Nobody wants to see a guy get hit in the head. I felt sorry for the guy, it shook me up a little, but I had to get myself together and get people out -- that's what I get paid to do."

After the game, McDonald tried to call Nokes in the Yankees' clubhouse. "But he was already gone," said McDonald. "I'll probably think about it tonight, and I'll check with him tomorrow [today] when I get to the park."

One of the complaints about McDonald has been that he hasn't been able to pitch inside effectively. That's considered one of the primary reasons why he's allowed a major-league leading 25 home runs this year.

The irony of that theory is that McDonald has now hit more batters (five) than any other pitcher on the staff. But Orioles pitching coach Dick Bosman doesn't think there's any connection between Nokes being hit and McDonald's effectiveness last night.

"Sure, there can be an intimidation factor sometimes," said Bosman, "but I don't think that was the case. I think Ben was concerned because he smoked him [Nokes] pretty good, but after that he started making some quality pitches."

The most effective being a slider that has only recently been introduced by McDonald. "Early on, nothing was working," said the big right-hander. "I wasn't getting ahead of anybody, I couldn't get the curve over the plate."

Yet, in the dugout, Bosman saw something that wasn't readily apparent. "The gist of our conversation on the mound was 'you've got more than just a fastball tonight, so let's establish a mix so we can use all the pitches,' " said Bosman.

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