CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ben McDonald moved gracefully through his motions yesterday, as if the five months between competitive appearances was some kind of time warp.
"He picked up right where he left off," said manager Johnny Oates, who has watched McDonald come into his own during the past two seasons. "He has grown so much, being able to take the ball every time the last two years."
The Philadelphia Phillies can attest to that. McDonald grew into a monster right before their eyes yesterday, striking out five of the 10 batters he faced and giving up one hit in three scoreless innings in an 11-5 Orioles victory at Jack Russell Stadium.
"I felt surprisingly, very, very good," said McDonald, who, despite a 13-14 record, was the most consistent pitcher in the Orioles rotation a year ago. "That's the best I've felt all year, but I know that not every day is going to feel like this."
Of course not, but he has developed a habit of creating great expectations. He came out of Louisiana State as one of the most highly touted college pitchers, but suffered through two years of injury and inconsistency before truly arriving as a major-league starter. He finally got healthy, but still has not proved that he can be more than a .500 pitcher.
This year, he expects things to be different.
"I still have just one goal -- to make every start," McDonald said. "If I can do that, the numbers are going to take care of themselves."
He did that the past two seasons, but has yet to emerge as the big winner he was expected to be. He went 13-13 with a 4.24 ERA in 1992, then came back to go 13-14 despite the 12th-best ERA (3.39) in the American League. That wasn't easy to figure on a club that scored 786 runs last year.
"I thought there were some games I could have won, and there was even one game that I lost because I made an error," McDonald said. "But I feel I was one of the most consistent pitchers in the big leagues. I had 28 starts in which I gave up three earned runs or less. I think I should have won more than 13 games."
The Orioles will need him to do better than that this year, and the organization has tried to do its part. It added two quality hitters to a starting lineup that wasn't too bad a year ago. McDonald likes what he sees, but he still takes responsibility for his won-lost record.
"I look at Roger Clemens, and I see him go out there with a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning and close it down," McDonald said. "That's the way I want to be."
It is too early in spring to know if he has moved to a new level of effectiveness, but there is no question that he came into camp in good shape. He was scheduled to throw two innings yesterday, but moved through them so effectively he pitched a third.
"He was ready last year," Oates said. "He could walk 20 miles a day hunting and then come to camp and run circles around everybody and think he was in shape, but there is also baseball conditioning. I think he's aware now of the total conditioning program."
Oates said he was happy to see the Orioles play a complete game yesterday. They had jumped into the lead in each of their first three exhibitions, but lost high-scoring games. This time, they took a 10-0 lead while McDonald and rookie John O'Donoghue strung five scoreless innings. The only pitcher to struggle was reliever Todd Frohwirth, who fell victim to a five-run Phillies rally in the seventh.
"That was after his pitch limit," Oates said.
"You have to remember that we've only played four games. You try to look at the whole picture."
Left-hander Brad Pennington, who struggled through the second half of the 1993 season, finished up with his second scoreless outing. He gave up one hit in the final 2 1/3 innings.