O's hitters pitch in for McDonald

April 07, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Last year, the Orioles lose this game. Last year, the opposing starter throws a shutout. Last year, Ben McDonald pitches well enough to win, only to suffer a loss or no-decision because of his punchless team.

Those days are going, going, gone.

This is the season McDonald becomes a 20-game winner, and not because he's that much better a pitcher. Indeed, the only one of his statistics likely to change dramatically is his run support. The difference isn't in McDonald, it's in the Orioles.

Last night, they trailed David Cone 2-0 after four innings, but pulled within one run on a two-strike, two-out single by Brady Anderson in the fifth, then took the lead on home runs by Rafael Palmeiro and Harold Baines two pitches apart in the sixth.

Going, going, gone.

Last year, McDonald did lose this game, lost it to Cleveland in his fourth home start, lost it 2-0 to Jose Mesa after pitching 8 1/3 strong innings. That night, the big blow against him was a two-run homer by Albert Belle. Last night, it was a two-run homer by Wally Joyner.

McDonald threw 98 pitches in 6 1/3 innings, then watched as three relievers closed out his 4-2 victory over Kansas City. He pitched as well as the Orioles could have expected, considering he was throwing with a tender elbow, and working for the first time in 10 days.

Two questions, two answers, two wins: McDonald and Mike Mussina combined for a 1.88 ERA against the Royals. Even more impressive, the Orioles overcame Kevin Appier and Cone, the pitchers who ranked second and third in the league last season in opponents' batting average.

"I'm excited. How can you not be excited?" McDonald said. "Any time you have an offense like this -- like Texas has, like Detroit has -- if the pitcher can just keep you in the ballgame, these guys can score runs at any time. What more can you ask for?"

Not much. The Orioles set a club scoring record in spring training, and now they've scored 10 runs and crushed four homers in their first two games. Cal Ripken went 0-for-4 last night, and no one noticed. Chris Hoiles just missed two homers. Palmeiro is on a 162-homer, 81-curtain call pace.

After the Orioles came north, manager Johnny Oates and pitching coach Dick Bosman met with the pitchers to state the obvious: Stay away from the big inning. Hang tough if the club is getting shut out. The explosion could come at any time.

As Bosman put it, "If you give our guys a chance to bang the ball a little bit, you've got a chance, man." McDonald gave the Orioles a chance. Palmeiro hit a low 1-1 changeup into the right-field bleachers. Baines hit a 1-0 fastball to the opposite field.

The back-to-back homers accounted for half the offense, but the Orioles didn't just win with power. Brady Anderson was a delightful nuisance, going 2-for-2 with two walks, drawing 11 pickoff attempts from Cone, and sliding hard into second base to break up a potential double play and enable the Orioles' final run to score.

They're going to win with power, they're going to win with speed, and yes, they're going to win with strong defense and effective relief pitching, too. Now if McDonald can only stay healthy -- the first test is how his elbow responds today -- a 20-win season should be within his grasp.

Actually, McDonald pitched well enough to win 20 last season. He ranked fourth in the league in opponents' batting average (.228), ninth in strikeouts (171) and 12th in ERA (3.39). His ERA was the second lowest by an Oriole qualifier since 1984.

Indeed, if not for poor run support, McDonald surely would have finished better than 13-14. He allowed three earned runs or fewer in 28 of 34 starts, including 14 straight at one point. Jim Palmer was the last Oriole to accomplish either feat.

The problem was, the Orioles went into a team-wide slump nearly every time McDonald took the mound. They scored only 97 runs in the 220 1/3 innings he pitched -- an average of 3.96 per nine innings, the fourth-lowest run support in the league.

Five times, McDonald was the victim of a shutout. Eight other times, the Orioles backed him with only one or two runs. Six of his losses were by 2-0, 2-1, 1-0, 2-0, 3-2 and 3-2. No pitcher can win consistently with that kind of support.

McDonald smiled last night when asked how many games he might have won with this lineup behind him last season. "I'd be scared to know," he said. "I don't know how many it would have been. But I'd have been up there, certainly with more than I had last year."

Now all he must do is stay healthy, avoid big innings and make his 35 starts. Last year, Ben McDonald loses this game. Last night, he won it. The Orioles' pitchers can relax now. The hitters are eliminating their fear of failure. Going, going, gone.

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