DETROIT -- Six games into the season, the pattern already is clear. The Orioles are 4-0 in games started by Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald, 0-2 in games started by Jamie Moyer and Arthur Rhodes.
Obviously, the fast starts by Mussina and McDonald are encouraging, considering the questions that surrounded them at the end of spring training and the importance of both to the Orioles' postseason chances.
Yet, the Big Two will start no more than 75 of 162 games even if they stay healthy. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the Orioles can't win without adequate pitching from Sid Fernandez, Moyer and Rhodes.
Three left-handers -- one overweight, another an overachiever and a third who might be overrated. But not to worry. The Orioles entered yesterday's play with a 5.00 ERA. Frightening? No, good enough for eighth in the American League.
The Chicago White Sox boast the only dominant pitching staff; everyone else has at least one Tim Belcher. Minnesota just gave up 39 runs in three games to a mediocre Oakland club. Even red-hot Toronto allowed 14 homers in its first six games.
Thus, if nothing else, the Orioles should be thankful for Mussina and McDonald. Their offense is so imposing, they've scored 12 runs in their two losses. Barring injuries, Mussina and McDonald easily could become the club's first pair of 20-game winners since Steve Stone and Scott McGregor in 1980.
McDonald is pitching with a tender elbow, but you couldn't tell judging by the bite on his slider yesterday in the Orioles' 7-4 victory over Detroit. He allowed only three hits in 7 2/3 innings against a team that last season scored the most runs of any club in 40 years.
It was quite a reversal from his last start at Tiger Stadium, when he allowed nine runs in 3 2/3 innings, triggering a nightmarish sequence in which the Orioles gave up 47 runs in three games. "I don't remember," manager Johnny Oates said yesterday. "What happened?"
McDonald remembered: Without that 15-1 loss, his ERA last season would have been 3.07 instead of 3.39. And the Tigers had given him trouble other times as well. Two years ago, Alan Trammell, Cecil Fielder and Mickey Tettleton hit consecutive home runs off him at Camden Yards.
Back then, McDonald didn't even throw the slider, a pitch taught to him by pitching coach Dick Bosman in the second half of 1992. Yesterday, he employed it frequently in striking out five of his first nine batters. By the late innings, he had his curveball working, too.
"That's the best I've seen him throw," said Tigers left fielder Tony Phillips, who failed to clear the infield in four at-bats. "He was painting with the fastball. It had good movement. He was throwing it down the middle, and it was moving down.
"Normally, he'll give me a pitch down the middle to hit. But to me, he wasn't over the white part of the plate. I came up [into the clubhouse] to watch him against right-handers [on TV]," the switch-hitting Phillips said. "He was painting the other side, too."
On a windy, 50-degree day, it might have been wise for Oates to remove McDonald as quickly as possible, but McDonald needed just 22 pitches to get through the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. He said he would have been upset if Oates had pulled him at that point, but he wound up throwing 112 pitches.
Oates did not seem disturbed -- he wanted McDonald's pitch count in the 100-to-110 range, anyway. McDonald said his elbow "occasionally grabbed here and there, but it wasn't a factor at all."
Bosman called his performance "very heartening."
Still, each start amounts to a critical test -- if McDonald's elbow condition worsens, the Orioles will fall out of contention quickly. Oates recognizes the danger, and he plans to use his starters every fifth game rather than every fifth day once Fernandez joins the rotation.
That will enable Rhodes to get regular work, while giving Mussina and McDonald an occasional extra day between starts. The added rest could prove significant if Oates decides to switch back in September, using his best starters as often as possible.
Either way, the Orioles can't simply rely on Mussina and McDonald. "Winning two out of five is not going to do it," Oates said. "We might not get seven every day, but we know we're going to score runs. We don't have to pitch great. But we have to pitch decent."
Six games into the season, the manager isn't asking for much.
Mussina and McDonald look like Cy Young contenders, but everything hinges on the left-handers. Will they be decent or deplorable? The Three Musketeers or the Three Stooges?