TORONTO -- If you took the quartet of home run balls that Ben McDonald allowed last night at SkyDome and lined them up end to end, it would take Carl Lewis approximately one minute to run from one end to the other. Starting to get the picture?
Against the Blue Jays on a spring night so pleasant that the dome roof was left open, the Orioles had a lopsided pitching matchup in their favor and a perfect opportunity to begin putting Alarming April behind them. Then McDonald gave up home run acreage totaling something like three-tenths of a mile, and the game was just a reaffirmation of the persistent truth that this season is a nightmare the Orioles can't shake.
They did score eight runs, not bad for a lineup lacking Mike Devereaux and Harold Baines, but any solace to be taken in the burst of offense was overwhelmed by the fact that the 10-8 loss should have been a win.
The Blue Jays, their rotation in tatters, started a pitcher who belonged in Double-A. No question about it. The kid's name was Scott Brow and he was pitching in the Southern League until a fortnight ago. Got called up because Dave Stewart and Al Leiter and Jack Morris were injured and Jimmy Key and David Cone and David Wells were gone, and, well, there just wasn't anyone else.
The Orioles started McDonald, the former wonder boy, whose pitching has been erratic but reasonably useful most of the time, more or less. The Orioles needed him to stand tall: they had won five of seven games, and, with the Blue Jays staggering into a long weekend series, this was clearly a chance to start putting a better spin on the season. Particularly when a Joe Carter error led to three Orioles runs in the first.
But Big Ben came up small. Miniscule.
He did get hit on the foot by a line drive in the first inning and was limping after the game. Whether it was an excuse, and also the Orioles' latest injury, was unclear. "It bothered me," McDonald said, "but not to the point where it effected my pitching."
Whatever did effect his pitching was a nasty creature indeed. Darnell Coles and Pat Borders touched him for 777 feet of bye-bye baseball in the second. Carter hit a 427-foot job in the third. Ed Sprague's 386-footer leading off the fourth was enough for manager Johnny Oates. McDonald went on to retire the side in order, but Oates still pulled him after the inning.
Not a second-guess was heard, of course. McDonald had already blown two leads, and it's usually safe to assume that a pitcher isn't sharp when his home-run mileage surpasses a quarter-mile.
In four innings.
The Orioles were down 6-5 when McDonald left and fell four runs down with a volley of errors and wild pitches before rallying to make it sweaty for the Jays in the ninth, but the underlying theme of the story was this: McDonald let the club down.
You figured Scott Brow would get Brow-beaten, and he certainly was. But McDonald wasted the advantage, turning the matchup into a push and raising once again a question that won't go away: Will he ever be worthy of trust?
The loss dropped his record to 2-3, which is precisely where he's been for the last two seasons: right around .500, usually a little below. This year he has been nothing if not an adventure.
There was the opener in Seattle when he completely lost it. The eight-inning masterpiece against the Chicago White Sox at home. Now, this: a remarkable night even for a pitcher who was second in the majors last season in home runs allowed.
He didn't allow a single ball to leave the park in his first four starts this year, lending credence to the company line -- stated all spring -- that he was gradually becoming a more polished pitcher. But then he allowed two homers in his last start. Last night's quartet gave him six in his past 10 innings, for those of you scoring at home.
What it is, plain and simple, is a baseball mystery. Even if McDonald did have a sore foot that made it difficult for him, he was close to unhittable. He faced 19 batters. Eleven could not get the ball out of the infield. Four put the ball into the left-field seats. Go figure.
It's just another reason for the Orioles to be discouraged about the general tenor of their season. As if the injuries and lack of clutch hitting aren't enough, look at the state of the starting rotation.
McDonald isn't dependable at all. Rick Sutcliffe has been up and down. Arthur Rhodes can't seem to get past the fourth inning. Fernando Valenzuela is barely keeping his career alive. If only Mike Mussina could pitch every game, the club would be fine.