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The O's Have It

A number of factors have contributed to Baltimore's rousing start. The Orioles, who finished sixth last year but were only a game behind first-place Toronto at week's end, have played terrific defense and have gotten surprisingly strong hitting performances from outfielder Brady Anderson and catcher Chris Hoiles. However, Baltimore's biggest lift has come from pitchers Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald.

"Those two are very similar," says manager John Oates. Indeed, both are righthanders, both are from major college programs, and both were 4-0 through Sunday, the first time the O's have had two starters with 4-0 records since Jim Palmer and Dave McNally in 1971.

"Yet they're so different," continues Oates. "Ben still has a lot of little kid in him. Mike is like a distinguished businessman. Mike is very mature."

Mussina, 23, looks and acts as if he has been in the majors for years. As of Sunday, he had made 18 big league starts, dating back to last August, and had pitched into the seventh inning 17 times. He had an 8-5 record with a 2.89 ERA. "He's very creative," says Baltimore pitching coach Dick Bosman. "He'll take a slider we've been fiddling around with in the bullpen and use it in a big situation to get an out. He can change speeds intuitively, which shows a lot of poise and composure. Good pitchers are often bright—not necessarily well educated, but bright."

Mussina is both. He graduated from Stanford in 3¬Ω years with a degree in economics. Says Oates, "I don't talk to him. I'm afraid he'll ask me something I don't know. He's got a line of books about three feet long in his locker. I probably talk to him less than anyone on the team. He needs less stroking than most players."

The Orioles made Mussina the 20th pick in the first round of the June 1990 draft. He pitched only 1¬Ω years in the minor leagues, putting together a 13-4 record and 2.43 ERA, before Baltimore called him up on July 31, 1991. Says Palmer, now an Oriole broadcaster, "The only way Mike won't win 20 games this season is if they don't score runs for him. What do I like about him? Everything."

Perhaps the most startling thing about Mussina's success is that he says he hasn't had his best stuff yet. He claims he's not throwing his curveball properly, and it bugs him. "I hate to do anything incorrectly," says Mussina. "When I missed a free throw playing high school basketball, it was like, Why did I miss that? No one is guarding me. Why don't I make it every time? I get very upset when I don't do things I know I can do."

McDonald was the No. 1 choice in the June 1989 draft. His stuff was so good at LSU that he was given the highest rating ever for a pitcher by the major league scouting bureau. After going 8-5 with a 2.43 ERA as a rookie in 1990, McDonald seemed set to be Baltimore's ace in '91. "It was, 'However Ben goes, so go the Orioles,' " says McDonald. "That's a lot of pressure for a 23-year-old kid."

McDonald wasn't up to the pressure and went 6-8 with a 4.84 ERA. Concern developed about his confidence: If he didn't have all his pitches working, he would get hit hard. One reason the O's signed veteran Rick Sutcliffe as a free agent in the off-season was to show McDonald how to win without his best stuff.

McDonald, like Mussina, says he hasn't had his best curveball most of the season. Last Wednesday his control was horrible in the first few innings against the Twins. However, instead of giving in, McDonald stiffened and wound up with a complete-game six-hitter in a 6-2 win. Asked if he could have won that game with the stuff he had a year ago, McDonald said, "Probably not. But I've learned from my mistakes. Sutcliffe has helped. So has Mike Flanagan. I'm not pitching my best, and I'm still winning games."

Same with Mussina. Wait until they get their good stuff.

The Hall Monitor

Tiger manager Sparky Anderson has been known to exaggerate, but when he says, "Dave Winfield is a first-ballot Hall of Famer," he's right. Winfield's red-hot start for the Blue Jays—a .339 average, six homers and 20 RBIs through Sunday—has done nothing to diminish his chances. Winfield had 412 career homers, the last one a two-out, two-strike grand slam in the ninth inning that gave Toronto an 8-7 victory over the Mariners last Thursday night. With 1,622 runs batted in, he was 16th on the alltime list, ahead of such Hall of Famers as Harmon Killebrew, Al Kaline, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell and Mickey Mantle.

After the slam against Seattle, he talked about the teams that had been interested in signing him in the off-season. Seattle was one. "We talked to Boston and California, too," said Winfield. But the Blue Jays got him, and Winfield is not shy about pointing out that Toronto is "the only team that's not messed up."

On the Comeback Trail

Red Sox reliever Jeff Gray continues to make excellent progress in his recovery from the stroke he suffered last season. On July 30, 1991, Gray, then one of the game's top setup men and the league leader in appearances, was walking in the Boston clubhouse after a morning workout when the right side of his body went limp and his speech became slurred. "I felt his arm and wrist," says Red Sox pitcher Joe Hesketh, "and it was ice-cold." A series of tests determined that Gray had suffered a stroke, and doctors worried that he would never walk again, let alone throw a baseball. "I had to teach myself to do everything," says Gray, who lives in Riverview, Fla.

Since January he has been throwing three times a week with the Brandon (Fla.) High team. "His progress has been amazing," says Gray's close friend Greg Parris, the Brandon baseball coach, who reports Gray is throwing 70 mph. "He worked so hard to get to the level he reached in the big leagues, then for this to happen, it's tough. But if anyone can come back, it's Jeff Gray."

Gray, 29, had hoped to work out with the Red Sox in spring training. "I'm behind where I thought I'd be," he says. "But I'm improving every day. I'm happy with where I'm at."

On May 23, Gray will meet with Red Sox officials to discuss the next step of the comeback. The hope is that he'll be able to pitch this year, perhaps with Boston's rookie league team during the summer. "He has come a long, long way," says Boston general manager Lou Gorman. "It's inspiring to see how determined he is. If he does pitch again in the major leagues, it will be a miraculous recovery. He's worked so hard, but it will still be a miracle."

Short Hops...

The Pirates" 11-run inning against the Reds on May 4 served as a reminder of how important a big inning can be. In 70% of the 2,104 games played in the majors last season, the winning team scored as many or more runs in one inning as the losing team did in the entire game....

Mets rightfielder Bobby Bonilla was in a slump the first week of May, and it gave him an opportunity to learn what it's like to play in New York when you're not doing well. After taking a called third strike with the bases loaded and two out in the seventh inning of a 4-2 loss to Cincinnati, a headline the next day in the New York Post was BOBBY 'BOOO.' New York Newsday had a headline that read: $29 MILLION FOR THIS? Overlooked was how three Mets errors, none by Bonilla, had put the Reds ahead in the first place....

Minnesota's Lenny Webster is the only black catcher in the majors. "Some catchers are moved to the outfield to take advantage of their speed," says Webster. "And the stereotype of black people is that they lack knowledge, but I've been pretty adequate at calling a game."

...Despite winning his last two starts through Sunday, Twins pitcher Scott Erickson continues to struggle. After facing Erickson last week, Cleveland's Junior Ortiz, Erickson's personal catcher with Minnesota last season, thought there was a "big difference" between the Erickson of 1992 and the Erickson who won 20 games in 1991. "His speed is down," says Ortiz. "He's not throwing that sharp slider. That's the best pitch he has."

...Another pitcher who seems to have lost some of his velocity is Mariners relief ace Mike Schooler. On consecutive nights, May 7 and 8, Schooler gave up a two-out grand slam to Dave Winfield in the ninth inning and a two-out, three-run homer to Detroit's Lou Whitaker in the ninth to lose both games.

PHOTO

BILL HICKEY/ALLSPROT USA

Mussina (right) has been all business for the O's on the mound, while Hoiles and his mates have been steady in the field.

PHOTO

SCOTT WACHTER

[See caption above.]

Between The Lines

Unhittable Pitching Will Always Win Out

Last Thursday in Chicago, White Sox pitchers walked 15 Red Sox hitters—including six with the bases loaded—and Chicago still won 7-6. Chicago knuckleballer Charlie Hough walked five straight in the first inning before he was lifted. "After a while I asked if I could pitch from closer in," says Hough.

Who Was That Masked Man?
A fight between the Class A Augusta (Ga.) Pirates and the Charleston (S.C.) Rainbows in Charleston on May 5 ended abruptly when a policeman on horseback rode onto the field to break up the fight. "That was the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen," says Augusta manager Scott Little. "There was no reason for him to be out there. We have no idea where he came from or what he was doing. This was not a major brawl. I've seen police come on the field in Venezuela carrying guns, but I've never seen a policeman come out like he was the Lone Ranger."

Starters Just Can't Go the Distance Anymore

In his seventh major league at bat, Astro pitcher Butch Henry got his first base hit last Friday night in Pittsburgh—a three-run, inside-the-park homer. Said Henry, who was huffing and puffing and barely slid in ahead of the relay throw from shortstop Jay Bell, "I started out slow and ended up slower. I was cussing [third base coach] Tommy Spencer when he waved me home. I would have settled for a triple and two RBIs."

A Sky-High Hi-Fi Fly
A fly ball hit by Montreal outfielder Larry Walker on May 5 hit a speaker hanging from the roof of Olympic Stadium. As dictated by stadium ground rules, he was credited with a home run. Expo media-relations director Richard Griffin entered the homer on his list of the most memorable shots in Olympic Stadium history. The top four home runs, along with Griffin's commentary, belong to: Willie Stargell ("long fly"), Darryl Strawberry ("high fly"), Walker ("hi-fi") and diminutive Casey Candaele ("sci-fi").

By the Numbers
•At week's end the Astros had gotten more RBIs from their pitchers (10) than they had from any other position except first base (17) and rightfield (13).