Amid hoopla, Ballard eager to get started

April 04, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- His preparation for Monday's Opening Day start now completed, Orioles pitcher Jeff Ballard can spend the next few days in eager anticipation.

And even though this is the first such assignment of his major-league career, the lefthander thinks he knows what to expect.

"It's going to be exciting. To me it will be exactly like that game in Toronto," said Ballard, referring to the epic game Oct. 1, 1989. That was the game Ballard protected a 1-0 lead until leaving in the eighth inning, a heart-stopping performance that keyed a weekend which left everyone limp.

"I imagine Opening Day will be just like that," Ballard said after pitching three scoreless innings before last night's game against Montreal was rained out. "The nerves will be jumping around. I remember the anxiety of that game -- the first strike, the first out, and getting through the first inning.

"Your body kind of acts on its own, from memory, in situations like that. There's not a lot of control from the brain on down until you get settled."

Getting the nod on Opening Day is poetic justice for Ballard, who figured to get the honor last year on the strength of his 18-8 1989 season. It's also the last thing he expected coming to spring training after a 2-11 1990 season in which he lost his spot in the rotation.

"I'm very excited about it," Ballard said of starting the final opener at Memorial Stadium. "I was excited when they told me and I've been excited thinking about it ever since."

Which more than makes up for the disappointment of a year ago.

"If we had had a normal spring training, six weeks to get ready, I think they would have given it to me," said Ballard, who, coming off elbow surgery, pitched the second game after Bob Milacki opened the season. "But with spring training shortened, I needed as many starts down here as possible. And even though I pitched the second game, it was on the third day -- and it gave me a chance to pitch an extra time in spring training."

Two things about this year's assignment are particularly pleasing to Ballard. It makes up for last year's disappointment, and it is a reward for the strong recovery he has made this spring after last year's disastrous record.

"I definitely think I got the call because of the way I threw during spring training," said Ballard. "It's nice to be rewarded like that. Two years ago was my first Opening Day and I remember the feeling of excitement and thinking how good it would feel to be out there pitching and be a part of it all. You look forward to these kind of things, because nothing's guaranteed from one year to the next.

"You never know when you might get another chance. It's like making the All-Star team [which he thought he might do in 1989]; you have to take advantage of it whenever the opportunity comes along.

"This is something I'm going to remember the rest of my life. It's another highlight of my career -- and hopefully it'll be a bigger highlight Monday night."

Ballard would have liked his final tuneup to be longer than last night's abbreviated outing. "I was hoping to go seven innings," he said. "And even after the first delay, I was looking for five. But I did throw a lot of pitches warming up the second time, so at least I got some work in and it's better than having to do it tomorrow [tonight]."

From here on out, the preparation for Monday will be as routine pTC as Ballard can make it, despite the surrounding hoopla. "I'll try to do the same things I always do to prepare myself," he said.

Starting the opener is an important first step for Ballard, who came to camp unsure of whether he even had a spot in the rotation.

"My goal is to take the mound whenever Frank [Robinson] wants to give me the ball -- whether it be on the sixth day or the fourth day," said Ballard.

"If I stay healthy and throw well, then I'll start all year. This is a good way to get out of the gate and hopefully I'll take it from there, stay healthy and get 35 starts."

Not coincidentally, that is the exact number of games Ballard started for the Orioles in the near-miracle year of 1989. If he can match everything else, everybody will be satisfied.

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