Let's see, Jeff Ballard's previous win. Orioles historians believe it was recorded sometime between the age of dinosaurs and the first appearance of Cro-Magnon Man. Actually, the date was May 27. Before Labor Day, Independence Day and Memorial Day. Before anyone heard of Saddam Hussein.
Manager Frank Robinson vowed two months ago that Ballard would not finish the season with one victory, even if he had to "steal" him another. Yesterday, it turned out, was the day, but it took some unusual managing and incredible umpiring to help Ballard finally secure No. 2.
Ah, but now the deed is done. Ben McDonald worked nine standout innings yesterday, but Ballard pitched the 10th, and that's the one in which Bob Melvin hit his game-winning sacrifice fly. The Orioles beat Milwaukee 2-1 for a three-game sweep, their first of the season over an AL East club.
The game did not lack heroes for a meaningless September affair, from McDonald, the rookie who allowed five hits; to Melvin, the replacement for injured catcher Chris Hoiles; to Mike Devereaux, the rustler who hit his second homer in two days off lefthander Teddy Higuera in the fifth.
But in the end this was Ballard's day, at long last. He was the winningest lefthander in the American League last season at 18-8. But he underwent two elbow operations last winter, and was in the rotation less than three months. His only victory was at Texas. He hadn't won at Memorial Stadium since Sept. 20, 1989.
Bad as it sounds, the whole thing had become something of a joke. "I'd already been planning my arbitration," cracked Ballard, who has remained upbeat throughout his ordeal. "I was just going to say, 'Anyone who starts the year with 28 wins and ends with 29 deserves a million dollars.' "
Robinson chuckled at the thought after the Orioles won their fifth straight, tying their season-high and moving within 1 1/2 games of fourth-place Cleveland. He replied, "I think they'd go along with it. He's finishing strong. He's 1-0 in September."
Kidding aside, Ballard himself wondered if he would earn another win after moving to the bullpen July 3 with a 1-9 record and 5.28 ERA. "I told Milacki the other day that I might become the first pitcher in the history of baseball to pitch half a year in the 'pen and not get a win."
Milacki is Bob Milacki, whom you may remember as the Orioles' other top starter from last season. The two combined for 32 wins, and the club went 18-5 in games they started after Aug. 17. This year they've combined for a total of six wins, equaling John Mitchell. Milacki missed all of August with a strained right (pitching) shoulder.
Judging by yesterday, maybe Milacki will get another win in relief, too. By all rights, this game belonged to McDonald, and it wasn't even one of his best days. Unable to grip his curve in the cool weather, he threw 80 percent fastballs. The result was his first start without a strikeout. He walked two.
(Ballard, of all people, recorded the Orioles' only strikeout. Last season he became the first pitcher in 48 years to win 18 games with as few as 62 strikeouts. His victim yesterday was pinch hitter Rob Deer, which figures. Deer has struck out 140 times in 406 at-bats.)
Anyway, Higuera was nearly as brilliant as McDonald, allowing seven hits and five walks, but escaping every jam. The Brewers took the lead on Greg Vaughn's 16th homer, an opposite-field number inside the rightfield pole with one out in the second. The Orioles tied the score on Devereaux's 10th, a rocket to left leading off the fifth.
Ballard entered the game after McDonald had thrown 118 pitches, and he ran 3-2 counts on the first three hitters he faced in the 10th, retiring the first two. The turning point occurred after Bill Spiers hit a two-out single to right.
The next batter, leadoff man Paul Molitor, hit a routine grounder to shortstop Cal Ripken. At first it seemed Ripken might throw to first, but at the last instant he went to second. Spiers appeared to slide into the bag ahead of the throw, but second-base umpire Ted Hendry had his back to the play.
Of course, this didn't stop Hendry from turning around and calling Spiers out to end the inning. "Put a picture of that on the front page of the paper, and see what ------- Richie Phillips has to say about that," Brewers pitching coach Larry Haney said, referring to the head of the umpires' union.
Even an Oriole admitted the call was "terrible, just terrible." Play resumed with Bill Ripken's leadoff double. Robinson then pulled the shocker of the day by giving Ripken the steal sign. "They weren't paying any attention," he said. "And Teddy is pretty slow to the plate."
Ripken stole third as rookie Leo Gomez struck out on a 3-2 pitch. Cal Ripken then was walked intentionally, bringing Melvin to the plate. Melvin had failed to hit a ball out of the infield in four trips after replacing Hoiles, who injured his shoulder in the first inning.
But this time he put Higuera's first pitch in the air to center. Mike Felder set up well, but his throw bounced off the lip of the mound. Bill Ripken plowed into catcher B.J. Surhoff's left leg, forcing him to lose his balance. With that, Jeff Ballard had his first win in nearly four months.
"A little change, huh?" he asked, smiling.
Never a doubt.