In 2nd, 6th, X marks trouble spots for Ballard

JOHN EISENBERG

April 09, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

The pitching statistic that isn't kept, but should be, is the "except." I love this concept. Yeah, I just invented it, and I love it. Take that, you Rotisserie cannibals. The "except." It is relevant in just about every game, tells more about the result than any number in a box score. Yes. A very, very large stat.

After just about every game, see, pitchers admit there are a couple of pitches they wish they hadn't thrown. "I threw well," they say, "except for . . . [fill in blank with a) horrifying show of destruction, b) average, run-of-the-mill pitching trauma, or c) a couple of hits that didn't matter to anyone except the batter's agent]."

The size of that "except" is critical to the success of the pitcher's performance. If he keeps it small, may be a couple of doubles or a meaningless home run, he probably won the game. But if his "except" gets out of control, a gaggle of hits and runs and balls hammered into distant lands, you know what happened: He lost.

Jeff Ballard had a big "except" yesterday, and the Orioles lost a 9-1 throw-it-out to the White Sox on Opening Day. (From here on, to legitimize this thing in that sabremetricious George Will way, and also to stop having to use quotation marks every 15 seconds, I will refer to the "except" as the X. Ballard had a big X yesterday. Hoo boy. I love this concept. I just love it.)

After the game, it was impossible to tell that Ballard had allowed six hits and seven runs (six earned) before leaving after four straight singles with two out in the sixth. Ballard said he was happy with his performance. So did Frank Robinson. So did Al Jackson, the Orioles' pitching coach.

"If he throws like that in every game he starts," Jackson said, "he's going to be fine."

What was so good?

"Everything."

Everything?

"Everything. His stamina was good. His location was good. He was ahead of the hitters."

Pause. Then the X. . . .

"He just made a couple of bad pitches."

Just had a big X. The first X was a full-count, too-high changeup to Sammy Sosa in the second, which was reinvested as a three-run homer. "It didn't move, just hung out there," Ballard said of the ball -- that's before it was hit, certainly not after.

But Ballard recovered, getting the next two batters to end the inning, then 11 more in a row. He was rolling, two out in the sixth, two strikes on Robin Ventura, another inning almost down. "And then," Ballard said, "I threw a solid pitch, but got it up just enough so he could hit it."

Ventura singled, the beginning of the end. The next batter, Frank Thomas, also singled. So did the next, Carlton Fisk. And the next, Cory Snyder. Dan Quayle was still in his seat (still had time for a late tee time if he hurried), but it was all over for Ballard: Orioles down, 5-1, then suddenly 8-1 after Jose Bautista finished his single-walk-double-goodbye relief job.

Ballard threw 83 pitches, a healthy 52 strikes, had four one-two-three innings through the fifth, almost another in the sixth. It is true that he was ahead of the hitters most of the time, that his pitches had a lot of movement, that he looked better than at any time in his injury-strung 1990, when he dropped from 18 wins to two.

"I will take [pitching with] this kind of stuff every time out," he said. "I had command of all my pitches, didn't get tired. I lost, but it wasn't like I was hit hard. I just made a few mistakes. That happens. If I have the same stuff every time out, I'm going to win a lot of games."

That he retired 13 straight batters is, for Ballard, indeed indicative of more than a middling command of his game. "He's a contact pitcher, gonna give up some hits, but he was pitching very well, had it under control," Robinson said. "Then the floodgates opened."

Ah, the big X: Five hits worth five runs. A pitch to Sosa, boom, three runs; four singles, boom, two more runs. Otherwise: Everyone will take it. "I'm not happy about losing," Ballard said, "but I'd feel worse if I'd pitched bad."

And so this is the headline: Good pitching, bad X. A five-run X, very high, very harmful. One or two is what you want. You can win with an X of one or two. Five: Trouble. Ballard's just gotta work on it. Get that X in regular-season form.

(FYI: Jeff Robinson and Dave Johnson have worked on their X's all spring. They gave up lots of runs in Florida, but often said they had pitched fairly well "except for that one inning." They've given their X's a workout. If they pitch well now, we'll know why.)

Of course, occasionally a pitcher will just admit he stunk up the yard worse than the resin bag and not claim an X. Not often, though. Most pitchers think as positively as the "Up With People" songwriters. It's either that or trundle off to the rubber room with all that time to sit around thinking about the wouldas, couldas and shouldas. That and what their managers say. "I was happy with Jeff," Robinson said, "except for the results."

Opening Day flops

The Orioles yesterday suffered their second-worst Opening Day defeat:

Year.. .. .. Score.. .. .. Opp... .. .. .. LP

1988.. .. .. 12-0.. .. Milwaukee.. .. Boddicker

1991.. .. .. 9-1.. .. .. Chicago.. .. .. Ballard

1978.. .. .. 11-3.. .. Milwaukee.. .. . Flanagan

1956.. .. .. 8-1.. .. .. Boston.. .. .. Wight

1959.. .. .. .9-2.. .. .. . Wash... .. Harshman

1955.. .. .. 12-5.. .. .. ..Wash... .. . Kretlow

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