Stiff McDonald, Mussina make pitching sore spot


MINNEAPOLIS -- Mike Mussina still was suffering from back soreness yesterday. Ben McDonald was complaining of some stiffness in his right shoulder. Rick Sutcliffe still is looking for his 11 first victory in July.

Is this a great rotation or what?

The Orioles have climbed back into contention in the American League East in spite of a series of pitching problems, and no one seems particularly concerned about what the near future will bring.

Mussina played catch before last night's game at the Metrodome, but could miss his next scheduled start because of the back strain he suffered during Wednesday's game at Camden Yards. No decision has been made, but manager Johnny Oates is prepared for either eventuality.

"He says he'll be ready to pitch, and the trainers say he'll be ready to pitch," Oates said. "But if he doesn't, we'll skip him. We could go with a four-man rotation until Aug. 3 without needing another pitcher."

If there is such a thing as a good time for something like this to happen, this is it. There are two days off scheduled next week, which will allow Oates to go with a four-man rotation or give his pitchers extra rest if Mussina is able to pitch.

"Sutcliffe and Mussina would go with five days' rest once, and the other guys would each get six days," Oates said. "We have 20 straight games after that, so it would be a good time to give them a little rest before they go into that August grind."

McDonald, in particular. He said last night that he experienced some extra shoulder stiffness after his one-hit performance against the Kansas City Royals Tuesday night, but he and the training staff say it is the result of normal midseason fatigue.

"I threw today, and it loosened up good," McDonald said. "It is the same as this time last year when I got a little dead arm for a few starts. There was no real pain. There was just nothing happening [on the mound].

"Last year, I was worried. Now, it's the same thing. It is no surprise. The last three outings, the location was good, but the velocity wasn't there. My last start, everything was back feeling strong. I think the reason I'm stiffer than normal is because of the long eighth inning. That happens sometimes."

McDonald's physical condition has been a preoccupation through out his major-league career, but he has not missed a scheduled start since the 1991 season. He got off to a rocky start this year, but has been the club's most consistently effective pitcher since early May.

"I think you learn more about yourself every year," he said. "You do what you have to do to make every start. That's what I'm most proud of, being the only guy on the staff who hasn't missed a start since the beginning of last year."

There may be some potential trouble spots in the rotation, but the Orioles appear to be in good shape for the stretch run.

The strong performances of left-handers Jamie Moyer and Fernando Valenzuela have deepened the rotation to the point where there may be no place for Arthur Rhodes when he is ready to return from an injury rehabilitation assignment.

Rhodes pitched well in his last start for the Rochester Red Wings, but he could be optioned to the minor leagues if there is no break in the rotation soon.

Still, it has to be comforting for Oates that he could be recalled tomorrow if necessary.

"It would be nice to have him back where he was the second half of last year," Oates said. "He threw the ball pretty well."

Rhodes did not throw the ball well in the early weeks of this season, however. He had a 1-2 record and a 9.36 ERA in six starts before undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery on May 18.

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