What could be is now for maturing McDonald

SIDELIGHT

May 05, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Baseball lifers like to say potential is a French word for, "I ain't got it yet." The word no longer applies to Ben McDonald. He has got it now. All of it.

These days, any time the word potential surfaces in a conversation regarding McDonald, it is in regard to his past, not his future.

The tall, smiling kid out of Louisiana State University who blew fastballs and leads during a 6-8 1991 season after going 8-5 in 1990, that was the pitcher with potential.

The 13-13 rotation fixture of 1992 started realizing some of that potential in the second half of that season, when he posted a 3.39 ERA, the same figure he had during a 13-14 1993 season in which he had everything but run support.

He has everything now. The finished product has no qualifiers attached to his record. That French word lies strictly in his past.

McDonald (6-0, 2.33) became the American League's first six-game winner by pitching his second consecutive complete game to defeat the Oakland Athletics, 9-1, Tuesday night at Oakland Coliseum.

He struck out eight, walked three and allowed five hits, dominating the A's despite not having even close to his best curveball. Six of the strikeouts came on called third strikes.

The A's only run came in the third, when Mike Bordick led off by reaching on a chopper over third baseman Chris Sabo's head and scored on Steve Sax's two-out triple.

From the fourth through the eighth, McDonald allowed one hit. He grew stronger as the game progressed and took a three-hitter into the ninth.

"That's been me for my whole career," McDonald said. "If they are going to get me, normally it's early. My fastball was as strong in the seventh, eighth and ninth as it was in the first three innings."

McDonald, 26, has joined arms with Mike Mussina, 25, to give the Orioles the winningest tandem in baseball. Mussina (5-1, 2.89) will go for his sixth win tomorrow night against Cleveland when the Orioles open a six-game homestand that concludes with a three-game series against two-time defending World Series champion Toronto.

Left-hander Jim Abbott started last night for the New York Yankees in search of his fourth win, which would have teamed him with Jimmy Key to make the Yankees the only other American League team with as many as two four-game winners.

McDonald could have been a big winner last season but for offensive help that was the fourth-worst among AL starting pitchers.

"If I got run support last year, there's no telling how many games I could have won," McDonald said.

That hasn't been a problem for McDonald this season. The Orioles have averaged 7.5 runs in his six starts.

In 46 of his past 54 starts, McDonald has held the opposition to three earned runs or fewer.

"Pitching coaches and other pitchers talked to me a lot, but for me there is no substitute for experience," McDonald said. "It never really sunk in until I got out on the mound and did it myself, experienced some failure, had some success."

Even when he failed, McDonald gave reason to believe he would become the big winner he is today.

"When I was younger, I didn't have a game plan," McDonald said. "I just went out there and threw the ball, and you can't do that."

McDonald blends a curve, forkball and changeup with his 90-plus-mph fastball, but he has not made the mistake some pitchers do when they refine their secondary pitches. He has not strayed from realizing everything revolves around his fastball, one of the best in baseball.

"I threw a lot of fastballs tonight," McDonald said after beating the A's. "I had an exceptional fastball tonight. I had good velocity and more important I was able to locate it where I wanted."

McDonald said most of his fastballs are in the 88-mph range, except when he needs a faster one.

"I'm able to cruise along and then when I get in a little jam, I can get it up to 93, 94," McDonald said. "It's nice to be able to reach back and get a little extra when I need it."

McDonald had a 3-0 lead by the time he threw his first pitch.

"You've got to go after the hitters when you have a lead like that," McDonald said. "The last thing you want to do is go out there walking guys with a big lead.

"But you've still got to pitch. I remember when I was 22, having a 5-0 lead in Kansas City, and the pitching coach said just go after them. The next inning we were behind 6-5 and I was out of the game."

That was when McDonald had potential.

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