He came into the American League with the highest expectations possible, and it took Ben McDonald one start to meet them.

It took the Baltimore Orioles' right-hander three starts to discover he could struggle -- and still win. That might have been the most important realization of all.

Tuesday night's 6-4 victory over Toronto was McDonald's third in three starts. Admittedly, it wasn't as breathtaking as his starting debut July 21, when he beat the Chicago White Sox on a four-hit shutout.

But what McDonald showed the Orioles Tuesday night was that he could win without his best stuff, something that separates the great ones from the rest.

"It was a confidence builder, no doubt," said McDonald, the No. 1 pick in the 1989 draft. "I didn't have a curveball at all through the first three innings. But I was still able to keep them off balance. It was great to be able to win when my arm just wasn't as fresh."

The 6-foot-7 McDonald was the 1989 college baseball player of the year, leading Louisiana State into the College World Series and earning the highest rating ever for a pitcher from the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau. In the 1988 Olympics, he led the U.S. team to the gold medal with two complete-game victories.

Performances like that left McDonald tagged with the kiss-of-death "can't miss" label that has ruined many careers.

Everybody, it seemed, put pressure on McDonald. Except himself.

"I didn't see it as pressure as much as a chance to do what I've always wanted to do," said McDonald, who wrestled alligators while growing up on the Louisiana bayous. "I can't allow myself to get too wrapped up in it, or else it will affect my pitching. You get too excited, you lose control."

Atlanta Braves pitcher Steve Avery entered the league with the same kind of expectations, but he has struggled, with a 1-5 record and 5.36 earned run average, while McDonald has starred.

McDonald said he was aware of Avery's troubles, but is unfazed. "I'd like to think I have more experience than him, having played college ball," McDonald said. "And I'm 22 -- he's only 19. I'm not worried about what happened to him."

Al Jackson, the Orioles' pitching coach, points out that Avery was put into the Braves' starting rotation immediately. "I'm not saying that the Braves rushed Avery," he said. "But we made sure we brought Ben along slowly. And then again, you can never tell which pitchers will make it. There have been plenty of them with all the potential in the world that didn't make it."

Even though he pitched six games in relief at the end of last season and six more this season before his first start, it took a four-hit shutout for McDonald to make his first major impact.

If he took a little longer than planned to make it big with the Orioles, blame can be placed on the baseballs. In June at Rochester, McDonald was hampered by a nagging blister on his finger that he says was caused by the raised seams on International League balls.

Jackson has seen many eager young faces come and go in his 30-odd years around big league fields. But he said only Dwight Gooden, the man Jackson brought along while serving as the Mets' minor league pitching instructor, equals the potential of McDonald.

"Dwight's the only other one," Jackson said. "Ben has an abundance of ability. It's hard to come by. I don't know where he gets it. I can never say what makes a pitcher so great. Maybe it's some intangible. But I know it when I see it."

McDonald's "been a lift," he added. "We weren't dead when we gave him the ball, but he gave us a shot in the arm."

A week ago in Kansas City, another worthy evaluator dropped another great name when talking about McDonald. George Brett, future Hall of Famer, said McDonald's stuff was the best he'd seen all year -- "even better than Clemens." Roger, that is, the Red Sox' two-time Cy Young Award winner.

McDonald's response to Brett's remarks showed a touch of savvy: "That was a big compliment. And he saw my best stuff, because to a hitter like Brett you throw your best stuff. You get real pumped up.

"But you have to be careful with what a hitter like that says. He could be setting me up by saying that. He could come back and destroy me the next time out."