PORT CHARLOTTE, FLORIDA — PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jeff Ballard walked into the visiting clubhouse yesterday and confronted teammate Bob Milacki, his comrade in sore arms.
"You really put the pressure on me out there," Ballard said. "I didn't want to be the first one to give it up."
Ballard didn't give up anything. Not the first run of spring. Not a hit. Not anything. He was the middleman in the Orioles' second consecutive Grapefruit League shutout, a 5-0 victory over the Texas Rangers at Charlotte County Stadium.
Milacki was a tough act to follow, but his one-hit performance was upstaged by Ballard's three perfect innings. In the year of the Orioles comeback, the real comeback pitchers are right on schedule and enjoying every minute of it. It is a sign of their untroubled times that they can compete playfully in the clubhouse and effectively on the mound.
"It felt pretty good," Ballard said. "I've still got a little something [soreness] in my elbow, but I'm just about done with that now. The next start or the one after that, there shouldn't be anything."
Milacki has shown no sign of the shoulder soreness that limited his effectiveness last year, and showed some of the pop that made him so effective two seasons ago.
"I liked the results," said Milacki, who gave up just a first-inning single to Jack Dougherty. "It was the first time out, so I was just trying to hit the big part of the plate."
Manager Frank Robinson just sat back and enjoyed the show. In the first two games of the Grapefruit League exhibition season, he has watched eight pitchers leave the mound without giving up a run, but he can be forgiven for being a little more excited about two of them.
"The main thing is that they are healthy," Robinson said. "They are capable of doing what they need to do to get ready. I could tell they were healthy when they were throwing on the side and in batting practice.
"You can tell that Milacki is confident in his arm and his pitches. Ballard was Ballard. He threw all his pitches and had confidence in them all. I just wanted to see them throw. If they do what they are capable of, they are going to win ballgames."
They are two very different pitchers thrown together by circumstance. They were the heroes of 1989 and the fallen idols of 1990. Now they are the comeback combination that just might lead the Orioles to a division title in 1991.
Ballard and Milacki combined to win 32 games two years ago and lead the team back into contention in the American League East. They won just seven games between them in 1990 as the club slipped back toward the bottom of the standings.
"If you added 25 more wins to last year, we would have won the pennant," Milacki said. "We both weren't 100 percent healthy. This year, if we stay healthy -- I am and I think he is -- we should have a season like '89. Add Ben McDonald and if we come close to 32 wins this year, we've got a chance to win this thing."
The early returns have been outstanding, although it is very, very early. Teammates were marveling at Ballard's improved arm strength the first time he threw off the practice mound this spring. The Rangers had to be impressed with the way he stayed ahead of the count and kept them off balance with his breaking pitches. By his own count, he failed to throw a first-pitch strike to only one of nine batters.
"You can't really compare this to my arm at this point last year," Ballard said. "At this point last year, I was about 50 percent.
"The hurdle for me was when I was getting in shape in January and I was facing hitters in live situations. My elbow was fine. I really feel I have put my arm worries behind me."
Catcher Bob Melvin handled both Ballard and Milacki yesterday FTC and saw nothing to challenge the notion that both are well on their way back to the performance levels they achieved in 1989.
"Control-wise, both of them were very good," Melvin said. "The first time in spring training, you're just trying to throw strikes. But they were moving the ball inside and out. We were setting guys up. We were having fun.
"I think Milacki has the pop back. When he has his good fastball, you can't look for anything else."
Milacki reported none of the shoulder stiffness that hindered him last year, though he still is looking for some improvement in his delivery out of the stretch.
"I have to stay back," he said. "I have a tendency to push the ball [not extend his arm fully] out of the stretch, and I still have to work on that. I feel that my problems last year were mechanical. If I have good mechanics, I'll be fine."
The Orioles went into spring training fairly confident that one of the two would be back to his 1989 form, but could not build for 1991 on the assumption that both would be in the starting rotation.
Now, Robinson faces a surplus of solid starters, with Dave Johnson, McDonald, Jeff Robinson and Jose Mesa also expecting to be in the five-man rotation.
"They could make it very difficult for me," Robinson said. "I hope they do."