Ben McDonald restored order last night. He made the Orioles forget their ugly performance the evening before and made the Oakland Athletics remember who's who in the American League power structure this year.
The A's had gotten a little mixed up. They were supposed to be cannon fodder for two of the top contenders in the AL East the past week, but they swept the Toronto Blue Jays and, on Friday night, hammered the Orioles.
McDonald finally put them in their place, giving up four hits on the way to a 3-1 victory that kept the Orioles 1 1/2 games behind AL East-leading Toronto.
"They're playing well right now, and they've been especially dangerous late in the game," McDonald said, "so I was concentrating extra hard in the late innings."
His concentration hasn't been a problem for some time now. The victory was McDonald's third in a row, and it pushed him over .500 (12-11) for the first time this season. He may not have the flashy record to prove it, but he has been one of the most effective pitchers in the American League this year.
He gave up only one run for the third start in a row, dropping his earned run average to 3.18 and moving into sixth place in that category. He has given up three or fewer runs in 25 of his 30 starts this year. The complete game was his fifth and his fourth in his past eight starts.
Not bad for a young pitcher who is working in a real pennant race for the first time. The Orioles were mathematically in the race at this point a year ago, but it was nothing like this.
"I think that everyone wants to get to the point where they are consistent," McDonald said. "Those are the pitchers who win a lot of ballgames. I'm more proud of going out there every time than anything else. That's 65 straight starts without missing a start. That's what I'm most proud of."
There wasn't a lot of offensive support to work with. What else is new? The Orioles have averaged 3.87 runs per nine innings with McDonald on the mound -- fourth worst among AL pitchers -- but he has not let it get him down.
Harold Baines helped him with three hits last night, Chris Hoiles hit his 24th home run and Brady Anderson had an RBI single.
That was more than enough to maintain the status quo in the tight AL East race.
"We don't have the kind of team that is going to score 10 runs every night," McDonald said, "so we've got to pitch well. If we win the games we've got to win, we're going to take this thing. We're right where we want to be."
McDonald took the mound hours after the Blue Jays had defeated the California Angels, but he did not seem to be weighed down by the pressure to keep his club on pace.
The A's had scored five runs off Mike Mussina and seven more in the eighth inning against a trio of Orioles relievers on Friday night, but they were far less formidable against McDonald. He gave up one hit through the first 5 1/3 innings and carried a shutout bid into the seventh on the way to his third straight victory.
"He doesn't have to get much better," manager Johnny Oates said. "It's the consistency. That's what's exciting. He gave up three runs or
less 14 times in a row at one point and 25 out of 30 starts. That's pretty darn good. You can just see the confidence in him and the ballclub behind him."
The other team can see it, too. Oakland manager Tony La Russa had nothing but praise for McDonald.
"That's about as tough as it gets," La Russa said.
"He's got five different things he can get people out with. Sometimes, with two or three, you've got a chance. He had five."
The Orioles kept the heat on Oakland starter Bob Welch throughout the early innings, taking the lead with a run in the first and adding two more to give McDonald breathing room in the fourth.
Three straight one-out hits helped the Orioles score in the first inning. Mark McLemore reached on a bloop single that fell between three fielders in shallow center. Mike Devereaux followed with a sharp single to the same location and Baines poked a bouncer through the middle to score the run. By the time the Orioles stopped running, Devereaux was at third and Baines had taken advantage of the throw to go to second, but Welch got out of the inning without further damage.
Welch skirted disaster in the third when Baines pulled a two-out double to right and Cal Ripken hit a deep drive to center that had the distance to become his 24th home run. If only center fielder Dave Henderson had not had the hang time to pull the ball back into the park and bring a theatrical end to the inning.
Henderson was not quite tall enough in the fourth, however. Hoiles hit a one-out drive to center that cleared the fence for his 24th home run, giving him the club lead in that department. The Orioles added a second run later in the inning when Harold Reynolds lined a two-out triple into the right field corner and Brady Anderson singled to center to give McDonald a three-run lead.
The A's scored in the seventh when Mike Aldrete lined a two-out double to left-center and Craig Paquette brought him home with a single through the middle. The double by Aldrete broke a string of 25 innings since McDonald had last given up an extra-base hit.
Welch did not pitch poorly, but he has had poor luck against the Orioles this year. In three starts, he has surrendered 14 runs on 24 hits in 15 1/3 innings (8.22 ERA). In his last appearance against Baltimore -- just a week ago at the Oakland Coliseum, he lasted three innings and gave up seven runs on eight hits.