McDonald's slider hedge against homers Bosman's sales pitch paying big dividends

September 17, 1992|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

A pitching coach has to be a salesman as well as an instructor.

So, after Orioles coach Dick Bosman taught Ben McDonald how to throw an effective slider, his mission was only half accomplished.

Bosman then had to sell McDonald on the merits of using the pitch in the right situations.

"We fooled around with it for about half the year, and when I thought he had it down sufficiently, I told him to try it," said Bosman.

"So he threw one one night and struck out a guy. He came into the dugout and said, 'I could do this all night.' That's when I got excited."

To be certain, McDonald's slider is not yet as effective as his 95-mph fastball or his best curve, which can be as dazzling as reliever Gregg Olson's.

But McDonald said umpires weren't calling his big overhand curve for strikes, so he developed the slider.

"When I have a good curve, I might not need it [the slider], but it's something I have in my back pocket," McDonald said. "If you have four pitches and you can use two of them, you'll be successful."

Said Bosman: "I see that his curveball is not always a usable pitch. The slider is a breaking pitch that can either be a supplement to the curve or an alternative."

McDonald (12-11), whose next start comes Saturday at Milwaukee, has had varying degrees of success this season, with or without the slider.

In fact, this season has been a microcosm of McDonald's professional career, with flashes of brilliance mixed with horrid stretches.

Off an encouraging spring training, the right-hander won his first five starts and appeared to be on track for the kind of sea

son that had been forecast for him when he was the first player chosen in the 1989 free-agent draft.

NTC In June, however, he lost three of four decisions, and his ERA for the month was 6.08, pushing his season ERA to 5.00.

"I hit a lull where everything was missing," said McDonald. " 'Sut' [pitcher Rick Sutcliffe] had the same thing happen to him in July. You just can't keep getting behind hitters 2-0."

The reason for that is simple. When a pitcher falls behind early in the count because his off-speed pitches aren't working, he generally has to come down the heart of the plate with a fastball, which batters expect.

And when they guess correctly, they hit home runs -- 31 off McDonald this season, more than any other major-league pitcher.

"There are a lot of guys who never give in to hitters," McDonald said. "I was never taught that. I was told to go after them with your best stuff.

"I couldn't hit the corners, and when you're pitching to guys like [Mark] McGwire and [Jose] Canseco, and you have to come in on 2-0, it's going to hurt you."

However, since the slider became a more regular part of McDonald's repertoire, his pitches have tended to stay in the ballpark.

He has allowed just 12 homers since July 1, and his ERA has fallen to 4.26. In his past three starts, he has allowed just four earned runs in 20 2/3 innings. Still, he's winless in his past six starts overall and in his past eight starts at home.

"I talked to [California Angels starter Bert] Blyleven, and he gave up 56 home runs one year and 52 another," McDonald said. "He told me when you're a power pitcher, you're going to give up home runs.

"But I have worked to try to be more consistent. I think I've thrown the ball better and I've made the adjustments. I'll keep working on it and year to year, I'll be able to cut down on the number of home runs I give up."

There are people, both inside and outside the Orioles organization, who still contend that McDonald would have been much better served if he'd had more seasoning in the minor leagues, where he has just 71 innings over all three levels.

If McDonald had learned to throw the slider during his time at Rochester, Hagerstown or Frederick, maybe he wouldn't be going through these growing pains now.

"It's something we'll never know," said manager Johnny Oates. "The only thing we do know is that if he had been healthy, he'd certainly be farther along, because there's nothing like getting out there."

This year, thanks to off-season conditioning and in-season work with team strength and conditioning coach Allan Johnson, McDonald has made 30 starts without missing one.

"I've been learning how my body would respond and how to pace myself," said McDonald. "Now, I know how it feels to get through a whole season. I wanted to make 35 starts and I'll be able to do that this year."

The slider

When thrown properly, the slider can be an effective pitch because it so closely resembles a fastball, but with a sharper break.

The slider, delivered with the index and middle fingers together between seams, breaks away from a right-handed hitter when thrown by a right-hander.

A fastball is usually delivered with the index and middle fingers spread across the seams, though variations of the pitch are delivered with four fingers on the upper and lower seams.

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