Birds' pitching flunks opening test Bautista offers nicked Ballard no relief in rout

April 09, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

For openers, it was a clinker. For the last opener, it was forgettable.

But, fortunately, it counted only once in the standings.

The Orioles' loss to the Chicago White Sox on their final Opening Day at Memorial Stadium before 50,213 wasn't as artistically disastrous as the 9-1 score might indicate, but it wasn't painless either. And it did nothing to erase the big question mark that hovers over a season of high expectations. Is the pitching good enough for the Orioles to be contenders?

Jeff Ballard, giving an excellent impression of himself two years ago, pitched well for 5 2/3 innings. But he left with a loss and six runs charged to his ERA account. The numbers didn't paint a pretty picture for what was considered a generally effective performance.

The difference between Ballard and his former Stanford teammate Jack McDowell, who matched his career-high with 10 strikeouts, was elementary. It was also typical of some past failings by the Orioles' pitching staff.

"I learned a long time ago that the difference between getting away with a mistake and getting hurt is about 5 or 6 mph," said pitching coach Al Jackson.

Ballard made one noticeable mistake and it ended up on the other side of the leftfield fence, a three-run homer by Sammy Sosa in the second inning. McDowell undoubtedly made a few mistakes, but they were covered up by a 90-mph fastball and a nasty breaking pitch that kept the Orioles off balance all day.

Until he gave up four successive singles with two outs in the sixth inning, the Orioles had no complaints with Ballard. The lefthander had retired 13 in a row after Sosa's home run (which followed a one-out error by third baseman Craig Worthington) and there was no hint of impending disaster.

"You can't attach too much significance to one game," said manager Frank Robinson, echoing the words of every losing manager on Opening Day. Nevertheless, it can't be overlooked that the game got out of hand in the middle innings, an area in which the Orioles definitely need improvement.

Jose Bautista, coming off an impressive spring performance, came up woefully short, failing to retire any of the three hitters he faced. In the span of seven batters, the White Sox turned a 3-1 lead into an 8-1 bulge and Sosa's second homer of the day in the eighth inning (off Paul Kilgas) was window dressing.

"He [Bautista] was all out of whack," said Robinson. "He was having trouble with the mound -- landing after he threw the ball. I don't know why, but that's what it was."

As the pitching staff is currently made up, Bautista is playing a vital role -- a power pitcher counted on to get the Orioles into the late innings. Yesterday that was something the White Sox didn't have to worry about.

After giving up a first-inning run on a two-out single by Cal Ripken and a double by Glenn Davis, McDowell never let the White Sox lose control of the game. All Ballard could do, after his experience with Sosa, was try to keep it close.

"I felt great coming out of the bullpen and I threw the ball as good as I'm going to throw it," said Ballard. "I made a mistake that cost me three runs, but I made a lot of good pitches.

lTC "I'll take that every time I go out there. I'm not going to have any bad memories. I had good stuff and never really felt like I got hit very hard."

Ballard's appraisal was seconded by Jackson, who didn't let the dark statistics cloud his view. "It wasn't discouraging," said Jackson. "He threw the ball well.

"How many hits did they have [six]? How many were hit hard [the home run, most notably]? I'll take my chances when he's throwing like that. All I want him to do is maintain what he has right now and grow from there."

The pitch (to Sosa) that caused Ballard most of his trouble was a 3-and-2 changeup dictated by the hitter's reaction to the previous pitch. "I made a couple of good pitches to him on 1-and-2 and 2-and-2," said Ballard. "They were balls, but they were good pitches and I could tell he wanted to swing at the 2-and-2 pitch.

"His reaction told me I should try that pitch again," said Ballard. "But I threw a straight change instead of a sinking one, and it was up a little bit. I just didn't make as good a pitch in that situation as I needed to make and he hit it."

Robinson wouldn't second-guess a second straight changeup to Sosa. "There's nothing wrong with it if you make a good pitch," said Robinson. "The ball just didn't do anything. It didn't move. It just stayed in the same place. You have to give him [Sosa] some credit. He hit it."

The bottom line on this one was that Ballard needed a shutout to win, because the Orioles' vaunted new offense never got into gear against McDowell. Four hits, only two after the first inning, is not conducive to winning.

"I would've hoped we'd have played better," said Robinson. "It just didn't happen. But it's one game in a long season. We'll recoup."

For the new-look team in the old-look stadium, it wasn't an auspicious beginning. The Orioles still have to find a few answers between now and Oct. 6, when Memorial Stadium hosts its last regularly scheduled major-league game.

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