SEATTLE -- There was no fanfare when Fernando Valenzuela walked to the mound on Friday night. There were no mariachis playing and certainly no media crush. Fernandomania II wasn't supposed to start this way.
Valenzuela wasn't expected to make his Orioles debut until Tuesday night in Texas, but his services were required during Friday night's 6-0 loss to the Seattle Mariners at the Kingdome. He had waited two years to make his triumphant return to the major leagues, only to sneak into a blowout and pitch one meaningless inning of long relief.
It was a good inning, mind you. He retired the side in order and got in a little work without endangering his first start. It just didn't seem like the appropriate way for his illustrious baseball career to resume.
"Why not," Valenzuela said. "I was in the bullpen the last three games. I think you have to be prepared for any game any time. It didn't surprise me. It was good for me. I got to pitch a little bit and I got to face some hitters."
He went in to face the middle of the Mariners order in the seventh inning. He quickly retired cleanup hitter Tino Martinez on a routine fly ball to center field. Pete O'Brien grounded out to second and Jay Buhner flied out to left, and it was over. Stopper Gregg Olson pitched the eighth as the Orioles went down quietly again.
Valenzuela had been through so much. He had been released by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1991, then picked up and released by the California Angels later that season. He spent the past year pitching in the Mexican Leagues, putting in 260 innings between the summer and winter league seasons. Surely there must have been some surge of emotion -- some feeling of vindication -- when he finally walked out to the mound on Friday night.
"Not really," he said. "I was trying to concentrate on what I was doing. I didn't think a thing about it. This isn't spring training
anymore. Right now, I've got to be serious. I've got to be aggressive. Now these games count. I've got to be prepared."
He was not just saying that. Valenzuela has taken that approach from the day he first walked into the major leagues in the final weeks of the 1980 season. Even when Fernandomania was at its peak in April and May of 1981, he was a quiet, no-nonsense guy. Perhaps that is why he was able to be so successful at such a tender age.
There has been a tremendous amount of emphasis put on his return to the major leagues, but Valenzuela said Friday that he only considers that to be half the battle.
"The hard part is still ahead," he said. "I have to help the team."
Perhaps Orioles manager Johnny Oates was eager to sneak him into a game before the club got to Texas, hoping that might reduce the glare of the national spotlight. Valenzuela still will make his debut as a starter on Tuesday night, but it can no longer be presented as the new beginning.
"It'll still be exciting going back to the mound to start a game," Valenzuela said.
The rest of the Orioles probably were eager to sneak out of the Kingdome after Friday night's game. Right-hander Ben McDonald turned in what may have been the worst performance of his career and the supposedly improved offensive lineup continued to come up empty in clutch situations.
McDonald lasted just 1 1/3 innings and handed out a career-high seven walks in a frightening display of wildness that left Oates wondering just what went wrong.
"I've never seen him as erratic as he was with his control today," Oates said. "He's not a high walk-type guy."
It took McDonald 55 pitches to get four outs. He walked three batters in the first inning and escaped with only one run across. In the second, he walked four of the first five batters to force in a run before Oates brought on right-hander Mark Williamson.
No one could explain the flat offensive performance. The Orioles went 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position in a loss to the Texas Rangers on Wednesday night and had to think that it couldn't get any worse than that. But it did.
The Orioles went 0-for-13 in clutch situations on Friday night and stranded 15 runners, tying the major-league record for runners left on base by the losing club in a shutout.