When things turned slow, McDonald finally got going

JOHN EISENBERG

July 29, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW YORK -- Not to sound too curmudgeonly here, but in the first three innings last night at Yankee Stadium, the Orioles and Yankees combined for 120 pitches, seven hits, four walks, two wild pitches, one batter hit in the head, nine runners left on base, five full counts, two conferences on the mound -- and just three runs.

Three innings in 80 minutes. That late-night subway ride home through the Bronx was getting later and more thrilling by the minute.

"Things did get a little lengthy out there," David Segui said. "You could take a nap."

Three innings in 80 minutes. Almost enough time for an entire Woody Allen double-feature, and still two-thirds of the game to go! With, of course, the always-present possibility of a time-consuming ball-scuffing incident involving a Yankees pitcher.

"There was a whole lot of time to talk in the bullpen tonight," Gregg Olson said. "We had Storm [Davis] and [Rick] Dempsey out there and we talked about the '88 World Series. And then we talked about the '79 World Series. And then we watched the police hauling all those people out of the stands."

It all made for the trickiest of tricky nights for the Orioles. You have heard of baseball's infamous dog days? This was the dog itself. And a gnarly little critter it was. But the Blue Jays, finally finished with the Athletics, were winning again on the scoreboard. You can lose pennants on nights like this. Nights when the going is slower than C-Span. Nights in July when your mind wanders and games get away and then your numbers do not add up come September.

By the end of the fifth, two fans had offered marriage proposals on the scoreboard and Randy Milligan had stranded five runners.

"A slow night," the Moose said, "but particularly slow for me."

Bob Shepherd, the Yankees' famously Senatorial public address announcer, was reading a book between pitches. But out of the fog a clearer picture of the evening slowly began to form: Ben McDonald was starting to deliver.

Not deliver the Ruthian home run balls for which he has become famous this season. Deliver as the Orioles always hoped he would. In other words, blow batters away.

Funny how it wound up happening. He was terrible in the first three innings. His fastball was wild. His curveball was not hitting its spots. He fell behind to eight of the first nine hitters. "I had nothing, basically," McDonald said.

The Yankees put five runners on base without any outs in the first two innings. Somehow, they scored only one run. In the third, McDonald threw a wild pitch and then drilled Yankees catcher Matt Nokes in the head.

The Orioles' only solace was that Yankees starter Scott Sanderson was no less miserable. The Orioles scored once in the third and twice in the fifth for a 3-2 lead. The game passed the two-hour birthday.

"It always goes slower," manager Johnny Oates said, "when you aren't getting anyone out."

But then McDonald started to deliver. He struck out the side in the fourth inning. He retired the Yankees in order in the fifth. He struck out the side again in the sixth. When he got Pat Kelly swinging to start the seventh, he had struck out eight of 12 batters.

"My [pitching] mechanics got better and I got into a routine and things started to roll," he said.

The Orioles scored another run in the seventh on a long Mike Devereaux home run, giving them a two-run lead. In the outfield bleachers, police were ejecting fans for fighting. Those who remained gathered round the spectacle and chanted "U.S.A., U.S.A."

By the time Olson came on to replace McDonald for the bottom of the ninth, the lead was up to 5-2, and suddenly, on this doggiest of days, a true moment of progress had occurred for McDonald.

He had survived on the strength of his third pitch, the slider, which, he said, "got him through" the first three innings. And he had not collapsed when the Yankees pressed him early. Usually, in his short career, he has been unable to escape jams. This time was different.

"Actually, it was a lot like a lot of his performances this year," Oates said, "in that he was fantastic for six or seven innings, and had a couple of innings that hurt him. But he did get out of trouble this time."

And he got the order right this time. He put his strong innings at the end, not the beginning. He closed. So on a night when it seemed the game would never end, a tricky night when life stood still but there was still something to lose, the Orioles did not fall for the gag. They did not lose a thing. It will come in handy if there is a September to their season.

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