That's Ben McDonald, of course. He's the biggest reason that the Orioles will challenge Boston and Toronto instead of battling the rest of the pack for fourth. Rarely does a 23-year-old with 15 major league starts warrant such stature, but McDonald is unique—and not only because of his habit of eating a can of mustard sardines before each start. He's the best pitcher to hit the American League since Clemens, in 1984. The righthanded McDonald throws in the mid-90's and fearlessly busts hitters inside, but he hasn't hit one of the 505 major league batters he has faced. Last season he allowed fewer base runners per nine innings than any other pitcher in the league.
That's all very nice, but for Baltimore to finish atop the AL East, McDonald has to win at least 20 games. Mentally, McDonald says, he's ready: "I've been the ace of every staff I've ever been on. My concern is that I've never pitched more than 180 innings before. To go 200-plus or 250-plus, I don't know how my arm will handle that."
So far, not so good. McDonald was scratched from his Opening Day start after suffering a strained flexor muscle in his right elbow late this-spring. If he misses an appreciable amount of time, it won't matter how many games closer Gregg Olson saves or how many homers Glenn Davis hits, the Orioles won't contend.
Davis, acquired from Houston in the off-season, fills a significant void. Last year, Baltimore's cleanup hitters produced fewer homers (16) and RBIs (78) than any other team's. Davis has proved he can hit with power: He has averaged 27 homers a season for the past six years, despite playing half his games in the dead-air Astrodome. Says Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, "That park [Baltimore's Memorial Stadium] is a bandbox. Davis may lead the league in homers."
It may be more important that Davis and the O's play solid defense, which is what kept Baltimore in the title chase in 1989. With first baseman Randy Milligan playing leftfield for the first time and 39-year-old Dwight Evans in right, that defense is no sure thing. Still, says Anderson, "if any team can upset Boston, it's Baltimore."
4. DETROIT TIGERS
That sound you hear coming from Tiger Stadium is whooosh. With Cecil Fielder, Rob Deer, Mickey Tettleton and Pete Incaviglia leading the way, the Tigers should break the single-season record for strikeouts (1,203) set by the '68 New York Mets. "I laugh at it," says Deer, who fanned 147 times last year with Milwaukee. "People think they'll hurt my feelings when they say that. I could cut down on strikeouts, hit .250 with 12 homers and 35 RBIs. I'm not going to do that. I'm going to swing the bat hard in case I hit it."
"Strikeouts don't mean anything," says Anderson. O.K., then we'll track some other numbers for Detroit this season. Like the number of upper-deck homers hit against the Tigers' pitching staff. Or the number of times a Detroit starter gives up more home runs than he gets strikeouts. The Tigers, who will start seven players who have hit 24 homers in a season, will score lots of runs—but they will give up a lot more. Their '90 starters had the highest ERA (4.98) in the majors, and now the rotation no longer includes Morris, who signed with Minnesota as a free agent. His replacement, Bill Gullickson, allowed a homer per game in 15 of his last 17 appearances for the Astros in '90. Wait till he pitches in cozy Tiger Stadium. He joins Terrell, Frank Tanana, Dan Petry and Steve Searcy (the only one in the group younger than 31). Last year, that fivesome gave up 89 homers and struck out only 390 in 752⅔ innings.
Asked in spring training who would start on Opening Day, Anderson said, "Tanana. But it doesn't matter—we don't have number 1-2-3-4-5 pitchers. But we've never been blessed with great pitching. But with Jack, at least we had the one guy. But in a way. I feel better because we'll use all 10. But if we don't pitch, we can't win."
That's a lot of buts. But in this division, five buts will still get you fourth place.