McDonald: Patience sorely needed

WHEN LEARNING IS A PAIN

April 06, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

Maturing as a major-league ballplayer involved more than learning how to pitch, experience has told Ben McDonald.

It also entailed knowing when not to pitch.

"Something you learn with experience is how to distinguish between pain and soreness," McDonald said. " 'OK, this is

soreness, that's all right.' Or 'wait a minute, this is pain.' You always want to pitch, so it's a tough situation to be in."

McDonald found himself in that bind at the beginning of 1991; teammate Mike Mussina in the middle of 1993.

"It's a very fine line," McDonald said. "The first time you go through it is the toughest. Mike went through it last year, and I went through it three years ago. You always want to pitch with it. Then again, you want to be smart, too. You have to be smart enough to say, 'This is pain.' "

That's what McDonald's elbow told him in the days preceding his final scheduled start in Florida last week. Even though he was itching to pitch, he scratched himself from the start.

"Who knows, if I went out there and made that start with it feeling the way it did then, I might have missed this start," McDonald said.

McDonald opposes the Kansas City Royals' David Cone tonight at Camden Yards in a matchup between the American League's top two pitchers with losing records last season.

"It feels pretty good, but I won't know for sure until I start cranking it up 100 percent," McDonald said. "The big test is tomorrow night and again Thursday to see how it feels the day after. I'm expecting it will be fine."

McDonald, who has made 69 consecutive regular-season starts without a scratch, did not always show such prudence.

In 1991, he opened the season on the disabled list with an elbow strain, pitched seven games, then returned to the DL.

"The doctor said I was supposed to take six weeks off, and I was back out on the mound pitching in a major-league game 2 1/2 weeks later," McDonald said. "I was young and bull-headed."

During his consecutive starts streak, McDonald pitched through a flu that sapped 10 pounds and his strength, and he pitched through various degrees of arm soreness.

"Every staff has to have a couple of guys who go out there every time, even if they aren't feeling 100 percent, and I'm proud of the fact that I'm one of them," McDonald said. "But you've got to be smart, too. You can't go out there when you are going to do damage to your arm."

To those who suggest he is on the verge of a breakthrough season, McDonald has a standard response.

"Personally, I think last year was a breakthrough year," he said. "You've got to look at all the numbers to see how well I pitched. Joe Blow sees 13-14, but if you look at all the categories I was in the top 10 in, you will see how well I pitched."

McDonald lost games by scores of 1-0, 2-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-2 and 3-2.

He allowed three earned runs or fewer in 28 of his 34 starts, the best performance by an Orioles pitcher since Hall of Famer Jim Palmer in 1982.

He allowed two earned runs or fewer in 20 of his starts and won only nine of them.

He came to the major leagues in 1989 branded a sure 20-game winner, but armed with only two reliable pitches, a fastball and a curve.

Now, he complements those pitches with a forkball, slider and a changeup.

"I think he's come a long way," Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles said. "He's learned how to pitch, how to set guys up, how to finish them off.

"So many guys come out of college having had a lot of success with their fastballs, and when they get to the big leagues, they tend to think they can do the same thing. I probably got caught up in it, too, because he does have such a good, live fastball. We've kind of learned it together."

Orioles manager Johnny Oates said McDonald will have a pitch limit of 100 tonight.

"We'll monitor him as we go along, because he's had a little tenderness," Oates said. "Going into the game, our thinking will be no more than 100."

McDonald will do his best to keep his attention trained on the Royals hitters and off his elbow.

"The trainers have done a great job with it, and all the tests have come back negative," McDonald said. "I know it's easier said than done, but I have to concentrate on pitching. I can't go out there thinking about my arm."

The timing, more than the nature of the tenderness, was what concerned McDonald.

"I've gone through this type of stuff the past couple of years, but I didn't expect it this early," he said. "I can't explain how or when I did it, but I'm encouraged. I think everything will be fine. There was just no reason this early in the season to take a chance."

ORIOLES TONIGHT

Site: Oriole Park

Time: 7:35

Royals starter: David Cone (11-14, 3.33 ERA in '93)

Orioles starter: Ben McDonald (13-14, 3.39 in '93)

TV/radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

3' Tickets: Approximately 3,000 remain

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