ARLINGTON, Texas -- For the second time in three years, Ben McDonald has won his first five decisions.
But that's the end of the similarity between this season and 1990.
Two years ago, McDonald didn't make his first start until July 21. By then, the Orioles were on their way to being dismissed from the pennant race and were merely trying to regain some #F respectability.
For the first time in his professional career, McDonald opened this season on the active list and has been in the rotation from the start. His 2.44 ERA is fifth best in the American League and opponents are batting .197 against him, the fourth-lowest mark in the league.
Yet, manager Johnny Oates and McDonald both say the best is yet to come.
"This might surprise a few people, but I don't think Ben's throwing as well now as he did then," said Oates. "He's still not throwing his curveball for strikes as much as he did two years ago. As far as his stuff is concerned, I think he'll get better.
"And what that tells me is, before it's all over, he's going to be every bit as good as we thought he would be," said Oates. "The trouble was we wanted him to be there yesterday, and he couldn't get there until tomorrow."
McDonald agrees with Oates' assessment. "The biggest difference between now and then is that I have a little more experience," the 6-foot-7 right-hander said before last night's game against the Rangers.
The night before, McDonald went 6 2/3 innings in a 5-1 win over Texas to become the first pitcher in club history to go 5-0 in two different seasons.
"I don't think I'm throwing as good now as I did then," he said. "Don't get me wrong. It's been fun and I've been pitching good enough to keep us in games until we score some runs -- but I can pitch better."
Oates might question that last statement. Although he says McDonald was throwing better two years ago, the manager can find no quarrel with the way he's pitching now -- and there is a difference.
"What I noticed two years ago was that all of Ben's fastballs were the same -- 90-91 mph," said Oates. "Now, I see a lot of them about 88-89 -- and every once in a while he gets one up to 93-94.
"You don't have to throw your best fastball every time," said Oates, "and that's something he seems to have learned. The difference in Ben now has nothing to do with baseball -- he's just become a more mature person, which makes him a better baseball player."
NB The result is that McDonald doesn't always appear as overpower
ing (he has struck out 32 in 48 innings) as he can be. "If you're going to be a starting pitcher, you've got to be able to stay out there," he said. "If they [opposing hitters] are going to ground out or pop up on one pitch, I'll take it.
"It takes a lot out of you to throw the ball 93-94 mph on every pitch," said McDonald. "But I still have the confidence that I can throw it that hard if I have to. I don't worry about strikeouts, but if there's a point where I need one, then I'll go for it."
Two nights ago, McDonald struck out only three, but two came in crucial spots with runners on. He got Juan Gonzalez to end the fourth inning and Dean Palmer for the last out he recorded, in the seventh inning. Each time he turned his fastball up a notch.
"I'm more seasoned now than I was two years ago," said McDonald. "Then I just went out and threw whatever the catcher called for -- now I've got a game plan every time I go out there.
"I didn't know the hitters then. Now, I've got a little experience and I'm still learning."
And the Orioles are starting to feel like maybe tomorrow finally has arrived.