For a guy who has been tagged with the potential label for longer than he'd like, Ben McDonald pitched his way into some fancy company last night.
In what may have been the best performance in the brief history of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, McDonald threw a brilliant one-hitter as the Orioles beat the Kansas City Royals, 7-0. A fourth-inning single by Gary Gaetti was the only blemish against McDonald, who has won his past three starts.
McDonald also got a bonus for his effort. He had the distinction of pitching the Orioles into first place for the first time since June 19, 1992. The Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees, previously tied for the American League East lead, both lost last night to drop a half-game behind the Orioles.
Harold Baines, who had three hits, provided McDonald with all the offensive support he needed by driving in three runs. His seventh homer was the only run in the game until the Orioles scored six times in the eighth inning to put it away.
It marked the 14th straight start in which McDonald has allowed three earned runs or less, matching a streak by Hall of Famer Jim Palmer in 1972. It was the first shutout of the year, and the fifth of his career, for McDonald (7-8).
Last night's performance was undoubtedly McDonald's best of the year, but it wasn't that much out of the ordinary. "Lately they've all been good," said Orioles manager Johnny Oates.
"You look at his last 14 starts, and the way you can tell [how much McDonald has progressed] is by the reaction of the hitters. They don't look too comfortable against him.
"Right now they are not getting a lot of good swings. They're guessing -- and hoping that they guess right."
Speaking of guessing, Oates added one of his own. "I guess that's the guy we expected to see step off the campus of LSU," he said, realizing that the expectations preceded the performances.
"I don't know whether it's fair or not, but that's something yohave to expect if you're the first player picked [in the amateur draft]," said McDonald, the Orioles' No. 1 pick in 1989. He reiterated that he has learned how to pitch at the major-league level.
"I never learned how to pitch in college," he said, "because could throw 95 miles per hour and had a good curve. At this level, you have to learn how to pitch."
McDonald might not have been on the crash course everyonseemed to expect, but his learning experience seems to be paying off.
"That's the best I've seen an opposing pitcher throw against us ** this year," said losing pitcher David Cone, who for seven innings was the other half of the best pitching duel the Orioles have been involved in this year.
"Two guys pitched great for seven innings," said Kansas Citmanager Hal McRae. "Cone gave up one and McDonald didn't give up anything. The error [by first baseman Wally Joyner] opened the game up."
Joyner's boot, on a grounder by Brady Anderson after Tim Huletled off the eighth inning with a single, put the Orioles in motion. They sent 10 men to the plate to make the final score very deceiving.
Except for the home run by Baines, Cone was McDonald's equathrough seven innings. Then he couldn't catch a break in the eighth.
"I broke three bats, and they all found holes," said Cone. "Bugive them credit, they fought off tough pitches."
McDonald, who walked three and matched his career high with nine strikeouts, said he felt being forced out with a blister on his throwing hand after six innings in his last start might have helped him. "The past three starts I had a dead-arm period when I couldn't get any velocity on my fastball, but I think I'm over that now," he said.
"The last start may have been a blessing in disguise. I threw about 120 pitches in my three previous starts, but only 87 the other night. That helped me tonight."
McDonald and Cone came into the game about as evenly matched as statistics would allow -- even though they didn't give a completely accurate picture. Both were saddled with 6-8 records despite highly respectable earned run averages, 3.49 for McDonald, 3.48 for Cone.
However, considering how the season started for both of the talented right-handers, their records accurately reflected how far they have progressed. Between them they won only two of their first 11 decisions.
It took Cone, who opened with an 0-5 record, eight starts to register his first victory in a Kansas City uniform. McDonald didn't fare much better. On June 1, he was the frustrated possessor of a 2-6 mark, one fewer than Cone at that point.
But since then, McDonald has been one of the most effective pitchers in baseball and Cone has marched in the same cadence as the pair hardly missed a beat.
Last night's matchup lived up to its billing. Baines' leadoff homer in the second inning was the only slash mark on the scoreboard through seven innings. "The ball got into my zone and I attacked it," said Baines, who quietly is doing everything the Orioles hoped when they signed him as a free agent last winter.
The three hits last night lifted Baines' average to .309 and he has driven in 36 runs in only 217 at-bats. "He's just a great hitter," said Cone. "He's intelligent and he makes great adjustments."
Other than the homer there weren't many signs of offense the rest of the night. "That was some nasty stuff out there tonight," said Mark McLemore, referring to both McDonald and Cone. "That was a baseball game."
It was a baseball game that, for the most part, featured a lot of unhittable pitches. "In the third inning, I felt Ben had no-hit stuff," said Oates.
Gaetti ended any such notions with his fourth-inning single but the Royals came close on only two other occasions. Hulett made a leaping catch of Greg Gagne's line drive to start a double play that erased a fifth-inning threat and Cal Ripken, who had a rare error earlier and later had his 10-game hitting streak stopped, made a spectacular stop on a one-hop shot by Joyner in the seventh.
Other than that it was McDonald's show, and he made the most of it.
LAST TO FIRST
The Orioles were in last place as recently as the morning of May 22, but today they find themselves on top of the American League East.
MAY 22.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..TODAY
Team.. .. .. W-L.. ..Pct. .. .GB .. .. ..Team .. .W-L ...Pct. .. .GB
Detroit.. ..25-15.. .625 .. ..-.. .. .. Orioles ..52-42 .553 .. ...-
New York....23-18.. .561.. ...2 1/2 .. .. .New York. 52-43 .547.. .... 1/2 Boston .. ..22-19.. .537.. ...3 1/2 .. .. .Toronto.. 52-43 .547.. .... 1/2 Toronto .. .22-19.. .537.. ...3 1/2 .. .. ..Boston.. .50-43 .538.. ...1 1/2 Milwaukee ..17-21.. .447.. ...7 .. .. ..Detroit...50-44 .532... ...2
Cleveland ..17-25.. .405.. ...9 .. .. .Cleveland..45-49 .479.. ....7
Orioles.. ..16-24.. .400.. ...9 .. .. .Milwaukee..37-55 .402.. ...14