Big Ben takes a lickin', but keeps on tickin'


Nothing is wrong with Ben McDonald that can't be cured by more fastballs at the knees and more curveballs that go where he wants and some time spent studying films and a bent front leg on his delivery and more confidence and more experience and a little less bravado and maybe a forkball and, let's see, did I mention more fastballs at the knees?

It's a Moby Dick of a "things-to-do" list, particularly for a 23-year-old just 27 starts into his major-league career, still encumbered by what pitching coach Al Jackson calls "rookie-ism." The moral is that the club probably rushed . . . oops, sorry, the moral is that it will be awhile before Ben becomes the one-word icon the Orioles promised.

Maybe that isn't a direction the script was supposed to take, and maybe you are among the legion of Bird-watchers getting anxious, but the wrong thing to do is panic. Roger Clemens won a total of just 16 games in his first two seasons. (Ben has won 13.) Sandy Koufax wasn't over .500 for good until his seventh season. Patience, patience. Prediction: Ben will win 20 in 1993, his fourth year in the bigs.

"People tell me it takes three or four years," he said the other night, after the Angels rubbed another smudge on his record, a 12-hit, five-run, three-homer blotch. "Hopefully, I'll adjust quicker than that. But everyone struggles. I'm learning that the hard way."

Indeed, for while patience is the password, right now Ben is just a very average pitcher in a middling rotation, his 5.86 ERA helium-filled, more than double last year's. The truth is that he is regressing, that he was a better pitcher a year ago, that he is confused, that he has his handlers confused. It is going to take some time to clear this up.

Let's start with the basic problem: What's wrong? Everyone is talking about his getting into trouble because he can't control his curve, allowing hitters to wait for his fastball, but for my money, that's backward. The root of Ben's evils is his fastball.

He is a fastball pitcher. Seventy-five percent of his pitches are fastballs. The Orioles made him a No. 1 pick because of those 94 mph monsters. But they really made him a No. 1 pick because those 94 mph monsters were consistently delivered at hitters' knees.

Ben did it in college and for the Orioles in 1990, but this season his fastball is too often at the waist or higher, an easier target. "His velocity is the same as ever, even better, but [his fastball] is up, up and up," manager John Oates said. Ben put it this way in his customary understatement: "I'd like to be a little lower."

Here is what I think: If Ben were throwing fastballs at the knees as he used to, no one would be worried about his wandering curve or whether he needed a forkball. Throw fastballs at the knees and he'd be ahead in the count. Throw fastballs at the knees and he'd win a lot of games regardless of what else he throws. That fastball is the answer to his ills, certainly the place to start.

The Orioles don't necessarily concur -- "You can't win with one pitch in the majors even if it's 95 mph," Oates said -- but they're going to attack the problem. "I'm going to get out some films," Oates said, "and look at these last few games and the games when he was going well, and compare."

What might he find? Is there some great secret? Should Ben lose a little speed in favor of control? Oates said he thinks he has detected at least one flaw, that the fastball tends to rise when Ben stiffens his front leg while planting it on the mound. "He needs that front leg bent in delivery," Oates said. "But I don't know if that's the entire reason."

The mystery of the wandering curveball may be more challenging. Ben used the pitch effectively last year, but not now. Is it mechanics? A lack of confidence? A residual problem from this year's elbow injury? Hard to say. This business can get pretty mystical sometimes.

Al Jackson swears that, though fully recovered, Ben's elbow is preventing him from throwing to potential right now. Oates disagrees, saying, "It's beginning to look like" Ben is losing confidence in the pitch. Ben? He just sounds confused.

"I've had a lot of people telling me what to do," he said, "and you get to the point where you're thinking, 'Am I stepping right? Are my mechanics right?' It's hard to do well when you've got all that in your head. It's not natural. It gets confusing."

It could get even more confusing if he begins throwing a forkball, which would be the fourth pitch in his satchel (his third is a changeup, still developing), and again, a lack of consensus is apparent. Oates said they will talk about it in the off-season. Ben said he's already throwing it in the bullpen and "will try it in a couple of weeks." Hmmm.

What is clear is that, as they say in those business seminars, everyone needs to get on the same page. And what is abundantly clear is that inexperience is a reasonable excuse for all this, that Ben is still a child in this game, very much a work in progress, his 27 starts not even an entire season's total.

Keep in mind: So much of this is still so new to him. He blew the 7-0 lead in Kansas City last week because he'd never had a big lead in the majors, never, and he remembered people telling him "just to go out and blow people away and get it over with," and he stopped pitching, threw all fastballs, goodbye. The other night, as the Angels' score was rising, Jackson made a trip to the mound.

"They're hitting some good pitches," Ben said.

"Yeah," Jackson said, "that's what happens in the major leagues."

The good news is that McDonald has the upbeat personality to handle this. He'll need it. Solving these problems will take time. They're solvable, though, so there's no reason to panic. And don't forget that, despite all this, major-league hitters have a lifetime .227 average against Ben. That's puny. The kid can pitch a sweet game. It may not look like it now, but he can. Oh, yeah.

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