Not at best, McDonald still good enough

INSIDE PITCH

May 05, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

Two weeks ago, after registering his fourth win, Ben McDonald was having difficulty explaining his early success. He had just beaten the Seattle Mariners despite not being able to throw a decent curveball for a strike.

McDonald shrugged his shoulders and with a puzzled look on his face said: "The frustrating thing is that I haven't had good stuff yet."

He quickly corrected himself, realizing that four straight wins isn't frustrating.

Frustration sets in when you have good stuff and lose, which happened often to McDonald a year ago, and undoubtedly will happen again sometime this season. Since that seemingly unimpressive win over Seattle, McDonald has reeled off two straight complete-game victories -- and some are still insisting his best stuff has yet to show up.

There is, of course, a degree of exaggeration involved here. You don't win six in a row, as McDonald has now done, without making a lot of good pitches. McDonald proved that again Tuesday night when he dominated the Oakland Athletics with an occasional sharp curve mixed in with a high percentage of well-placed fastballs.

What has happened gradually during the past two years is that McDonald has evolved into the kind of pitcher who can win without having all of his pitches present for any given game. It is the mark of the good ones, those who can compensate by letting their reputation work for them.

Jim Palmer had four outstanding pitches, but he recorded many of his 268 wins relying strictly on a fastball that had lost some velocity.

Mike Cuellar was a screwball pitcher, no pun intended, when he joined the Orioles. But many times that pitch was little more than a rumor as the crafty left-hander threw one fastball after another.

If Dave McNally had any one of his pitches working in a given game, he could find a way to beat you. The good ones can do that with regularity.

They tell you nobody can win consistently in the big leagues relying solely on a fastball, regardless of its velocity. But the fastball is still the most important pitch, the one every pitcher has to throw. It is the one any pitcher has to rely on to be successful, even if only to set up another.

In that regard, McDonald has a leg up on most people plying his trade because he can get the ball to home plate in a hurry. And, thanks to what normally is exceptional control, he's learned he can rely on it to get hitters out.

The bottom line is that McDonald no longer is getting hurt as much on his second-, third- or fourth-best pitches. He's good enough to challenge hitters, and has become smart enough to use all of his tools to keep them off guard.

Ben McDonald no longer is just a thrower. He's a pitcher, and barring injury, one on the verge of establishing himself as a very good one.

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