After early shortfall, McDonald follows through with delivery

BIG BEN LEARNS TO STAND TALL

August 08, 1993|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

For most of the past 24 years, Larry McDonald has had a front-row seat whenever and wherever his son, Ben, has pitched.

And Larry McDonald was in the front row behind the plate at Camden Yards when his son went to work against the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday night.

But this time was different. For maybe the first time in his career, Ben McDonald had become what his father always knew he would be.

A pretty good major-league pitcher.

"We had no false ideas that he was going to come in and storm the league. You just don't do that in this league," Larry McDonald said. "But with a little patience and some learning on his part, we knew this could happen."

To be sure, Ben McDonald's name would have been the least likely on a preseason list of Orioles starters with the lowest ERA through two-thirds of the season.

Yet, not only is McDonald's 3.03 ERA the lowest among Orioles starters, it's the third lowest in the American League -- better than more probable candidates such as David Cone of the Kansas City Royals and Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox.

Not bad work for a guy who confesses that he never learned how to pitch until he got to the major leagues.

"My concentration has been a lot better this year because I'm focused on the hitters and more focused on the job that I have to do," McDonald said. "Instead of looking at the big picture, I sort of have tunnel vision right now. I know what I have to do, and I know how I want to approach each outing."

Nearly every one of McDonald's past 17 outings, in which he has an ERA of 2.39, has been as impressive as the one before. He has allowed three earned runs or fewer in all but one of those starts.

"It [his performance] has become redundant," manager Johnny Oates said after McDonald's last dazzling effort, a 3-1 win over Brewers on Thursday night. "His last 16 or 17 starts have been so close to each other. You sit there and you just know that the next pitch is going to be a good one."

A sudden letdown

This was how it was always going to be for the right-handed legend-in-waiting from Denham Springs, La.

The way things were supposed to work, McDonald, the first overall choice in the 1989 amateur draft, was going to go right from an Olympic gold medal to the College World Series with Louisiana State to several Cy Young Awards at Camden Yards to the Hall of Fame without missing a beat.

Trouble was, no one ever told him how he was going to do all that without knowing how to pitch.

"It used to bother me a lot when I was 21 or 22 . . . that people expected that much out of me," said McDonald, who will be 26 in November. "I knew that I never learned how to pitch in college. I just knew that I could blow people away and overpower people. I never learned how. That kind of bothered me."

Indeed, for the college hitters he faced, McDonald's 95-mph fastball, curve and forkball were more than enough to get the job done.

And for a while, McDonald was able to get away with that limited repertoire. In 1990, he was 8-5 with a 2.43 ERA in 118 2/3 innings.

The hitters, however, got wise to McDonald in 1991, battering him for 126 hits and 68 earned runs in 126 1/3 innings, making the prophecy of greatness look a bit more improbable.

And the injuries didn't help. McDonald suffered a pulled left lateral oblique muscle (which connects the ribs to the pelvis) during an exhibition game in April 1990. A right elbow strain forced him onto the disabled list twice in the first 83 days of the 1991 season.

"I always considered myself to be very durable, and I always have been, through high school and through college," McDonald said. "I threw tons and tons of innings, and a lot was made of it when I came out of college. I was always the guy that took the ball and went out and threw the ball, and I was never, ever hurt."

But the durability went, and with it, according to Larry McDonald, went a piece of his son's confidence.

"After he was over with the injuries physically, he wasn't over them mentally," Larry McDonald said. "He was scared for a while that he was going to hurt himself again. That went through his mind for weeks and weeks and weeks. 'Do I really want to throw all out and throw that hard? I may pull that muscle again.' "

That timidity may have been at the forefront of McDonald's propensity to give up home runs. Hitters slammed 32 homers off McDonald last season, the second worst in the majors to Detroit's Bill Gullickson, who gave up 35.

Pitching through the pain

In the midst of that wreckage, McDonald began to find some things to hold onto. For one, he slowed the gopher ball rate, giving up just nine homers in his past 16 starts.

That reduced rate was a part of an overall improvement in the second half of the season. In those final 16 starts, McDonald had a 3.39 ERA, though his record during that span was only 5-7, thanks to a lack of run support.

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