Let's get one thing straight: The Orioles don't need huge years out of Ben McDonald and Arthur Rhodes. The Boston Red Sox won three division titles in five seasons with mediocre pitching staffs -- except when Roger Clemens was on the mound.
Clemens carried the Red Sox in 1986, '88 and '90, and the way things look, he might do it again in '93. He threw a five-hitter at Camden Yards last night, recording his 35th shutout and 53rd 10-strikeout game. You could have mailed it in: Red Sox 4, Orioles 0.
Forget the game; the Orioles had no chance. The comforting part is that Mike Mussina is the closest thing to Clemens in the game today. In fact, the Orioles' season hinges on the question so often asked about the Red Sox and their ace: Is there enough pitching around him?
The answer right now is no, but the rest of the rotation doesn't have to improve dramatically to make this team a contender. The Orioles are 5-2 (.714) in games started by Mussina, 8-16 (.333) with everyone else. They'll be in business, if they can just get the second percentage above .500.
That's how the Red Sox kept winning the division, with teams that were barely adequate. They had a .717 winning percentage in games started by Clemens in '86, '88 and '90, a .521 percentage with everyone else. In '90, they finished only one game over .500 (66-65) in games Clemens didn't pitch.
Can Mussina dominate in the same fashion? From every indication, the answer is yes. The bigger question is whether McDonald and Rhodes can emerge as presentable second and third starters. Quality innings should be the only thing required of veterans Rick Sutcliffe and Fernando Valenzuela.
McDonald pitched decently last night, but he won't be worthy of praise until he starts doing this consistently. Otherwise, we might be talking about nothing more than a more ballyhooed version of Jose Mesa -- or, going back further, Dennis Martinez.
Last Thursday, McDonald allowed four homers to Toronto in arguably the worst performance of his career. Pitching coach Dick Bosman gave him a stern lecture two days later, but to what end? McDonald fell behind 2-0 on five of his first six hitters last night. The last in that sequence, Ivan Calderon, hit a home run.
McDonald settled down after that, departing with two outs in the seventh and the Orioles trailing 2-0. He was charged with two more runs when a Scott Cooper single fell in front of right fielder Mark McLemore, but pitched well enough to win. Of course, when Clemens is your opponent, that often isn't good enough.
Fine. All the Orioles need is for McDonald and Rhodes to win 12 to 15 games, and Mussina will take care of the rest. Why, the Orioles nearly won the division this way last season, going 21-11 (.656) in games started by Mussina, 68-62 (.523) with everyone else.
They might have been 25-7 with Mussina, if not for four blown saves by the bullpen. It might be asking a lot for a 24-year-old to carry your staff, but the Red Sox did it with Clemens in '86. Is there any doubt Mussina can handle the burden?
He went 5-0 with a 1.56 ERA in his first meaningful September last season, and he keeps producing quality starts even on nights when he doesn't have his best stuff -- the latest coming Monday night, when he allowed 14 base runners in 6 1/3 innings, but only one run.
The comparison of his first 50 starts with Clemens' is telling -- Clemens had a slightly higher winning percentage, Mussina a significantly lower ERA. It's even more revealing if you buy Jim Palmer's argument that Camden Yards is more difficult to pitch in than Fenway Park.
The power alleys at Camden Yards are closer than in Fenway, and Palmer believes that creates a greater problem for Mussina than the Green Monster does for Clemens. Think about it: The left-handed power that would be most effective against Clemens is neutralized by Fenway's enormous right field.
Palmer obviously doesn't intend that as a knock on Clemens, who is only the second pitcher to lead the American League in ERA three straight years (Lefty Grove had a four-year streak from 1929-32). The point is, Mussina is indeed worthy of the comparison, even if he can't match Clemens strikeout for strikeout.
"In their makeup, they're a lot alike," says former Oriole Bob Melvin, who caught Mussina during his rookie season and is now a teammate of Clemens with Boston. "Mussina's out there to beat you. You know he's not going to give in. He's into it on every pitch. He doesn't let up."
That, of course, is the quality that defines Clemens. He overcame shoulder surgery in '85, and he now has pitched five straight games with a muscle pull in his right elbow. The Orioles are fortunate to have one just like him. If only they could get the rest of their house in order.