O'Donoghue realizes a dream, if not a win, in debut Undrafted pitcher beats Orioles odds

June 28, 1993|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

The good-luck baseball card was where it should be, where it has been most of his pro career -- in his back pocket.

John O'Donoghue, though, was clearly on unfamiliar ground -- on a major-league mound, facing big-league hitters, in the heat of an early-summer pennant race.

The major-league debut of the Orioles' 24-year-old pitching prospect was no overnight success story.

But when O'Donoghue walked off the mound in the middle of the seventh inning yesterday, trailing the New York Yankees, 6-3, he had done his job. Which was to keep the Orioles in the game long enough to give them a chance to win.

It was for that reason that another sellout crowd at Camden Yards gave the young left-hander a standing ovation, that Rick Sutcliffe met him at the top step of the dugout with the words, "Good job."

It could have been better, of course. The Orioles could have won. But the wonder of yesterday's 9-5 loss was that O'Donoghue was here at all.

This was a guy who never had been drafted in baseball -- not out of high school, not while at LSU, not in the expansion draft last winter.

Had he really expected to get this far, he was asked in the clubhouse while a plate of hot food cooled on the floor of his locker.

"Apparently not a lot of people did," the blond, crew-cut O'Donoghue said. "I was never one to think I would get this far. I worked hard, and it paid off."

It took three years in the Orioles minor-league system to get the call when Mike Mussina was scratched

from yesterday's start. It took 28 games at Triple-A. Today, he may be back in Triple-A. But yesterday the dream came true, and it wasn't a nightmare.

It turns out that O'Donoghue's inspiration -- and his good-luck charm -- was his father, who appeared in 257 big-league games, including 16 with the Orioles in 1968. John O'Donoghue Sr. is pitching coach for the Bowie Baysox. That is whose baseball card John Jr. carries in his hip pocket every time he takes the mound.

"It started when I was struggling my sophomore year at LSU," he said of the ritual. "I stuck it in my pocket when I went out to pitch. I did well, and it just caught on. But it's not something where, if I forget the card, I panic."

O'Donoghue, from Elkton, never panicked, even though the Yankees were 17-7 against left-handers coming into the game.

"I was more nervous waiting at the hotel today," he said. "Guys said you have just one first start, so have fun with it."

The first big-league hitter he faced, Bernie Williams, doubled sharply to left. The next batter was Wade Boggs, who knows a thing or three about hitting.

"I knew who he was," O'Donoghue said, smiling. "I was trying to throw the pitch where I wanted it. I was trying to hit spots. . . . I tried not to get into, 'That's Wade Boggs, that's Don Mattingly.' "

O'Donoghue retired Boggs on a long fly to right, with Williams scooting to third. He retired Mattingly on a comebacker and Danny Tartabull on a fly ball, and he escaped his first big-league jam without a run.

By the second inning, when Mike Stanley hit a hanging slider for a two-run homer, reality began to set in. O'Donoghue gave up nine hits, seven of them for extra bases, three that left the park. He struggled with his control and walked four. He left the ball up in the strike zone and paid the price.

It was a day to learn, said Orioles pitching coach Dick Bosman.

"He did something he's got to build on," Bosman said. "He's got to figure out what he's got to do to pitch in the big leagues. The first time is kind of a learning experience.

"He's going to pitch up here. He's got things to work on. Don't we all?"

As luck would have it, of the friends and relatives who had come to see O'Donoghue's debut, the three who counted most were absent. His father was in Canton, Ohio, with the Baysox, his mother was away on a business trip and his fiancee, Kelly Flynn, a high jumper at LSU, was in Canada for a meet.

He expected to phone his father last night. The conversation would cover the good and the bad.

"I'll tell him that I lost, and about the home runs," O'Donoghue said. "Just to go out and get my feet wet, though, that was nice."

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