SEATTLE -- Jeff Ballard couldn't believe it.
Three innings. Three runs. See you later.
Manager Frank Robinson apparently can't afford to be patient anymore. The three runs were enough to carry the Seattle Mariners to a 3-1 victory last night and drop the Baltimore Orioles back into the American League East cellar.
"Obviously, he saw something he didn't like and he didn't want to see it anymore," Ballard said. "But if you're going to be a starting pitcher, you've got to be able to work out of a jam. To me, it [the hook] was ridiculously early."
The move worked. Reliever Jeff Robinson came on to pitch 4 2/3 scoreless innings, even if the Orioles could not climb back from the modest early deficit.
"Ballard didn't have his good stuff," the Frank Robinson explained, "and it didn't look like he was going to get it."
This is what the slumping Orioles have come to. They have lost 12 of their past 18 games. They are averaging 3.5 runs. They are eight games out of first place and they are looking up at every other team in the division.
"I understand why he did it," Ballard said. "He's pressing a little bit. We got blown out the past two games in a row. He's trying to do the best that he can, but it's tough to pitch knowing that you're going to come out if you give up a couple of runs. I don't agree with it, but it's not my job to agree or disagree."
Just another rough night for the Orioles starting rotation, which has run up some frightening numbers through the first 4 1/2 weeks of the season. Baltimore starters are a combined 8-16 with a 5.48 ERA. Remove the solid performance of Jose Mesa, the club's only effective starter, and ERA of the rest of the rotation rises to 6.87.
Ballard was coming off back-to-back losses, each of them featuring a costly defensive lapse. He had fallen victim to three unearned runs after an error by Leo Gomez in an April 30 loss to the Mariners at Memorial Stadium and allowed an error by Bill Ripken to cost him three more unearned runs last weekend against the California Angels.
Ripken had not played since then. He jammed the ring finger of his right hand on the misplay and missed three starts, but he returned last night and was charged with a throwing error in the first inning that brought home the Mariners first run.
This one was more forgiveable. Ripken was the pivot man on what could have been an inning-ending double play, but Harold Reynolds was running on the pitch and reached second base at about the same time as the ball. Ripken's off-balance throw to first skipped past Randy Milligan, allowing Henry Cotto to score from third.
Ballard was not entirely blameless. He walked Cotto to open the inning and went 2-0 to No. 2 hitter Harold Reynolds before giving up a base hit. The run would be unearned, but not necessarily undeserved.
The third inning also began with a leadoff walk, this one to catcher Dave Valle, who came into the game batting just .178. Cotto followed with a broken-bat hit and Reynolds poked an RBI single through the right side of the infield. Ken Griffey followed with a sacrifice fly to give the Mariners a three-run lead.
Seattle starter Scott Bankhead wasn't around to enjoy it. He pitched two scoreless innings, but had to leave the game with tightness in his right shoulder. It was the second game in a row in which the opposing pitcher had to leave in the early innings -- Oakland Athletics starter Dave Stewart was injured in the second inning Wednesday -- but it also was the second time the Orioles could do nothing to take advantage.
Right-hander Rich DeLucia, who worked 7 2/3 innings and gave up one earned run in a victory over the Orioles at Memorial Stadium 12 days earlier, came on to pitch 4 2/3 innings and earn his third victory in five games.
The Orioles will have to look at the streaking Mariners for a couple more days, and the pitching only figures to get better. Bankhead was hurting, but Erik Hanson and Randy Johnson are feeling just fine.
The Mariners have won six straight games and 12 of their past 13 at home. They might be a good example of the way things can turn around, but they don't seem particularly willing to help the Orioles do the same.