Ballard gets belated opening call

April 01, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

MIAMI -- In an ideal world, left-hander Jeff Ballard would have been the Opening Day starter last year, but better late than never.

Ballard was told yesterday that he will be the replacement for injured Ben McDonald when the Baltimore Orioles open the regular season next Monday against the Chicago White Sox at Memorial Stadium.

Pitching coach Al Jackson took Ballard aside before yesterday's 9-2 Grapefruit League loss to the New York Yankees and gave him the good news. Ballard, who won 18 games in 1989, was not healthy enough to justify the honor last April, but he is not being rewarded for past performance.

"He's been the most effective starter," Jackson said. "I think everybody knows that. We've had other guys who have been effective, too, but wetalked about it and this is what we decided. He has shown he's ready for the season. He has had a hell of a spring."

So Ballard has been scratched from today's start against the Montreal Expos and will pitch Wednesday instead, which will take him into the opener on four days' rest. He likely will pitch in three of the first eight games of the regular season, just as McDonald would have if he had not been forced out of action with elbow soreness.

"There's a chance of that," Jackson added."That's what the slot calls for if he's going to pitch every five days."

Ballard was both surprised and delighted. He suffered the indignity of going from an 18-8 record in 1989 to a 2-11 mark last year. This doesn't make up for that, but it has to make him feel like he's finally back from the arm injury that led to a pair of elbow operations in November 1989.

"I should have gotten the Opening Day start last year based on 1989," Ballard said, "but I wasn't ready. I'm really excited about it. It's too bad that Ben's hurt. He's our No. 1 guy. But I'm very excited. It's something I've always wanted to do.

"It's one of the biggest games of the season. The fans. The excitement. It will be the biggest game I've pitched since that last series in Toronto in 1989."

Ballard has a 3-0 record and a 3.13 ERA in 23 innings of exhibition action. Only 39-year-old Mike Flanagan has better overall numbers, but he has not yet been designated as a starter or a reliever.

"I knew there was a chance," Ballard said. "I didn't know if they were planning on doing that, but I was hoping I would get that chance."

It was a surprise because manager Frank Robinson had hinted on Thursday that right-hander Dave Johnson would get the start, based on his 13-9 record last year. He was the winningest Orioles pitcher of 1990, but he was passed over when McDonald originally was selected as Opening Day starter and he has been passed over again.

Johnson was not happy about it, but he wasn't in a position to argue. He has not put up impressive numbers this spring, and was hit hard in his fifth Grapefruit League appearance yesterday. The Yankees scored seven runs on 13 hits in seven innings of work to raise his spring ERA to 6.38, but he settled down after a rocky, five-run first.

He has said all along that he'll be happy just to be in the starting LTC rotation, but it would be hard to convince anyone that he wasn't disappointed about it.

The Orioles are banking heavily on a healthy Ballard to bring back memories of 1989, when he opened the season with five straight victories and was named American League Pitcher of the Month for April.

"In '89, he learned how to pitch and he learned how to win," Jackson said. "Last year, he was not physically capable of doing either. This year, he is, so I think we might see the Ballard of 1989."

Ballard is not looking that far ahead. The trauma of his dramatic downturn last year has taught him to assume nothing.

"I don't look at the year as a whole," he said. "I didn't in 1989 and I didn't last year. I don't set expectations. I try to take it one step at a time as much as I can. But my confidence is as high as it has been in awhile. It's pretty high."

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