Opening Day start for McDonald in doubt Stiff elbow recalls 1990 spring injury


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It is becoming another disconcerting spring for Baltimore Orioles pitching ace Ben McDonald, whose physical condition has become an issue for the second year in a row.

McDonald had to be scratched from his scheduled start against the Montreal Expos yesterday. His right elbow stiffened while he was warming up in the bullpen. It has beenbothering him for the past couple of weeks, which leaves room to wonder whether he will be ready to start April 8 against the Chicago White Sox on Opening Day at Memorial Stadium.

"I don't know what it is, but it's something unusual," said McDonald. "It's the same muscle that got tired last year, but it's stiffer than normal. It hasn't gotten better since the last time I worked out in the bullpen."

McDonald said he first felt something in his third exhibition start. The problem also arose during the next start and worsened during aworkout earlier this week. It probably is no coincidence that he did not pitch well in either of his past two starts.

"When your elbow is stiff, it causes you not to be able to extend," he said. "You start trying to short-arm everything. It hurts, so you try to avoid the pain. That's when you can really get hurt, changing your mechanics. That's how you hurt your shoulder."

Pitching coach Al Jackson told McDonald to shut it down. The Orioles are depending heavily on him to anchor the starting rotation this year, so there was no sense taking any chances in a spring-training game. But Jackson was careful not to overreact.

"Take it from an old geezer who knows," Jackson said, "Once you put a baseball in your hand, you're going to ache for the rest of your life."

McDonald said that he was examined by an orthopedic specialist in Sarasota, Fla., before the Orioles headed east for their nine-day, 10-game swing through southern Florida. He was told that his arm strength was fine and that nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

"Last year, I had something like this, but when I threw it loosened up," McDonald said. "It's not loosening up now. That's what worries me. "It's got to scare you. Any time something you use to make your living is hurting, it concerns you, but I don't think it's serious. If I had to diagnose it, I'd say it is a muscle strain, but I imagine they'll have Dr. [Charles] Silberstein look at it this weekend."

Manager Frank Robinson will withhold judgment until he gets more information, but he is not taking the injury lightly.

"I have no idea [how serious it is]," he said. "We'll just have to wait and see. Any time you're dealing with a pitcher, and $H especially his arm, you have to be concerned."

Spring training has not been very good to McDonald, who missed half of the 1990 season after starting on the disabled list because of a pulled muscle in his side. He went to the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings and developed two nagging blisters on his pitching hand, which kept him frommaking his 1990 major-league debut until July.

The elbow stiffness wasn't his first injury this spring. McDonald strained a muscle in his rib cage during his first appearance of the exhibition season. He pitched with tightness in that area for a couple of games, initially leading to speculation that it had caused his mediocre performance the past two times he pitched (eight earned runs in eight innings).

McDonald says now that the elbow, not the rib cage, left him unable to follow through with his delivery.

If McDonald needs an extended rest, the Orioles probably will start the regular season with a four-man rotation that includes 39-year-old Mike Flanagan along with mainstays Dave Johnson and Jeff Ballard. Jose Mesa, Jeff Robinson and Bob Milacki also are competing for starting jobs, but the club will not need five starters right away, since it has three days off in the first nine days of the regular season.

The Orioles had hoped to take advantage of those open dates to start McDonald three times in the first eight games of the season, but that seems unlikely now.

"Sometimes you feel a little snake-bit," McDonald said. "There's nothing you can do about it. I worked hard this spring. I do my exercises. But this is a funny game.

"It's not to the point where I can't throw at all. I could pitch, but I don't want to take a chance where something may be wrong and I could do some real damage."

The Orioles doubtless will handle him cautiously. McDonald was one of the most highly touted pitching prospects in baseball history when the club made him the No. 1 choice in the 1989 June free-agent draft, and he didn't do anything to contradict the glowing scouting reports when he arrived in the majors last year.

Manager Robinson was so impressed with his performance (8-5, 2.43 ERA) that he named McDonald the 1991 Opening Day starter during the first week of spring training. Now, with only 10 days remaining before the regular-season opener, that start is very much in question.

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