McDonald saves the day, gives O's healthy start

July 27, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Walking in from the bullpen, Orioles pitching coach Dick Bosman reminded Ben McDonald of all that was at stake. He didn't just need to hold down the American League's top-hitting team. He needed to save the bullpen for the second game of the day-night doubleheader.

Fortunately for the Orioles, McDonald rose to both challenges. Rookie Mike Oquist stumbled predictably in the nightcap, lasting 2 2/3 innings, creating a 5-0 hole and absorbing a 9-2 defeat after McDonald pitched eight innings to win the opener, 10-4.

Manager Johnny Oates needed Jim Poole for only one inning in Game 1, then used Mark Williamson (3 2/3 ) and Tom Bolton (2 2/3 ) in Game 2. That leaves Poole, Alan Mills, Mark Eichhorn and Lee Smith available tonight. If Mike Mussina doesn't need the help, Sid Fernandez might tomorrow.

Oquist has a 8.62 ERA in his nine starts, and the sooner the Orioles trade for a Danny Jackson or Bob Tewksbury, the better. That way, it would be easier to tolerate Fernandez. The Orioles are getting quality starts from Jamie Moyer, Mussina and now McDonald.

"We talked about keeping the ball down, location being more important than velocity, making pitches count," Bosman said after Game 1. "We didn't want him trying to throw it by people and getting deep in counts. We needed him to stay out there. We had another game in a couple of hours."

Yet, McDonald wasn't worried about the bullpen as much as he was about the Indians. Not only do they sport a .292 team batting average, they lead the AL with 141 home runs. A dangerous club for any pitcher -- especially for McDonald, especially in Camden Yards.

"I'm a high-fastball pitcher," McDonald said. "I've been a high-fastball pitcher my whole career, and probably always will be. But I try to pitch down in this ballpark. I really try to concentrate on being down, down, down, getting more ground balls. That was a conscious effort, especially with this ballclub."

A conscious effort, a near-flawless execution, a big-game performance. In a game featuring six home runs, McDonald escaped largely unscathed. Yes, he allowed bases-empty homers to Eddie Murray and Albert Belle. But until adding two meaningless runs in the eighth, that was all the Indians got.

Ever so quietly, McDonald (12-6, 4.24) is back on a roll. He faced 29 batters yesterday without issuing a walk. The home runs by Murray and Belle were the first he has allowed since June 22. He'll finish July 2-1 with a 2.29 ERA in five starts.

The cramp in his right forearm was a one-time thing. McDonald said this is the healthiest he has been all season. Even more encouraging, he says he's throwing better than he did in April, when he started 7-0.

"Sometimes, you can throw the ball well and not win games. Other times, you throw the ball so-so and win games," McDonald said. "That's what happened in April. Just because I was winning didn't mean I was throwing the ball well. You take them any way you can get them."

McDonald took them, then went 3-6 over his next 10 starts. Nagging elbow and groin ailments were partly responsible for his slump, but the right-hander found himself in a 1-0 loss to Mark Langston on July 2, and has pitched effectively ever since.

Yet, McDonald asked the Orioles to wear their white jerseys instead of his favored black yesterday -- that's how anxious he was to improve his luck. He had allowed only five earned runs in July, but because of poor run support, he was only 1-1.

The change worked -- the Orioles scored as many runs yesterday as they had in his previous four starts -- but McDonald said the next time he pitches, the team will be back in black. He knows his turnaround is genuine. It happens every year.

"I've always been a better second-half pitcher," McDonald said. "A lot of that has to do with mechanics, being as tall as I am. Guys 6-foot-4 or above, it takes a while to find the mechanics that work for them. That's why I pitch better in the second half."

McDonald has a 4.51 lifetime ERA before the All-Star break, a 3.34 ERA after. He was nearly perfect for seven innings yesterday, but he got a 3-1 fastball up to Murray, and a 2-2 fastball up to Belle. Even then, Belle's homer was a cheapie, an opposite-field job off the top of the right-field scoreboard.

"A Camden Yards homer," McDonald said.

His early years were marred by injuries and homers, so now he resists both. Remember when he allowed 32 homers two years ago, including three in a row against Detroit, and four in one game against the Yankees? That seems so long ago.

McDonald gave up only 17 homers in 220 1/3 innings last season, the ninth-best ratio in the AL. This year, he has allowed 13 in 136 innings, the fewest of the Orioles' four principal starters. Fernandez has given up 23 homers, Moyer 21, Mussina 17.

The Orioles still need Fernandez to right himself, still need another starter to replace Oquist. But at least they can take comfort in McDonald. Yesterday, they needed him to win a game and save their bullpen. Mission accomplished, on both counts.

ORIOLES TONIGHT

Opponent: Cleveland Indians

Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Times: 7:35

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Indians' Jack Morris (9-6, 5.20) vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina (14-4, 3.02)

Tickets: Several hundred scattered singles remain, not including 183 bleacher and 275 standing-room tickets that go on sale when the gates open.

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