In this "Season To Remember," Memorial Stadium is rapidl becoming a place Jeff Ballard would like to forget.
The last time the lefthander started and won a game at home thOrioles were in a pennant race and Ballard was en route to an 18-8 record. That was almost two years ago, Sept. 20, 1989, and it's been all downhill ever since.
Last night Ballard had what manager John Oates called "normal" game, not overly impressive, but not disastrous either. For the 11th straight time (not counting a win in relief) Ballard came out on the short end, losing a 4-3 decision to the Detroit Tigers.
"No, I don't think that's normal," said Ballard, when asked if hagreed with his manager's assessment. "Nine hits in 5 2/3 innings -- I think that's a little high."
It's difficult to explain the rut Ballard is in at the moment. Excepfor his last start, when he gave up nine runs in the first inning, his games have followed a similar pattern -- and fallen somewhere in between good and bad.
"Yeah, you could call it being in between," said Ballard. "It alwayseems to be something."
Last night it was a pair of runs in the first inning, another in thsecond and a home run by Cecil Fielder in the fifth. It marked the 22nd time this year that the Orioles have trailed by at least 3-0 before the fourth inning.
"That's what bothers me," said Ballard. "If you're going to have chance to win, you've got to shut the other team down for the first few innings and give the guys a chance to get some at-bats.
"When you get behind early like that it causes everybody to gedown a little bit. If you give them a chance, then if they come up with a three-run inning [as the Orioles did], everyone is pumped up."
The Orioles did all of their scoring courtesy of errors by shortstoTravis Fryman and catcher Andy Allanson in the fifth inning. Ballard left an inning later, just before the Orioles missed a good opportunity to at least tie the game.
Randy Milligan, who lost a home run to a sparklingover-the-fence catch by former Oriole John Shelby in the second inning, drew a one-out walk, but was thrown out at third base following a single by Joe Orsulak.
"The best coach is the runner," said Oates, who wouldn'second-guess Milligan's decision. "I wouldn't want to see him get thrown out with nobody out, but I don't mind him getting thrown out with one out -- I'd rather he get thrown out once in a while being aggressive than never taking a chance."
The Orioles also had opportunities in the seventh, eighth anninth innings, with the middle of the lineup. But on a night when red-hot Cal Ripken went 0-for-5 and stranded six baserunners, this was a game that ultimately reverted back to the early innings, when Ballard was struggling.
"Except for the last two games, the first inning has usually beeone of my better innings," said Ballard. "But I started off by walking the first hitter [Tony Phillips], something you don't want to do -- especially after the last game.
"I didn't think about it [the nine-run first inning in Cleveland lasWednesday], because in my mind that was a fluke. I could go out there and throw righthanded and I don't think anything like that would happen again."
Nevertheless, getting behind 3-0 early in the game wasn'exactly the way to kill the memory either.
Ballard is now 6-20 since the start of last year and it's hard fohim to avoid the frustration. "You're always frustrated when you don't win," he said. "The only thing I've felt good about all year is the way I'm throwing."
Last year's 2-11 record was written off in part at least to a pair oelbow operations following the 1989 season. Ballard proclaimed himself healthy at the start of spring training and says he feels fine physically.
Oates doesn't question Ballard's fitness, but the manager doethink something might be missing. "In spring training I thought Jeff threw really well," said Oates. "I thought he was comparable to the way he threw in 1989. He was striking out a few people, his fastball was good and his changeup was effective."
But Oates isn't sure Ballard has the same weapons now that hhad a few months ago. "I don't think he's throwing as well as he did in spring training," said Oates. "I think his velocity is off just enough that his fastball is too close [in speed] to his changeup."
Still, Oates did not seem disturbed by Ballard's latest outing. "Iwas a normal Ballard game," said Oates. "He kept us within striking distance and we had opportunities.
"I'm not sure what Jeff's numbers are, but he's been reallconsistent in getting us into the sixth and seventh innings, probably as much or more than anybody else," said Oates. For the record, Ballard has pitched into the sixth inning in 11 of his 17 starts and has a couple of no-decisions that could have been wins. His 5.14 earned run average is mostly a product of the infamous nine- run inning.
But the bottom line is that the Orioles have won only four times igames Ballard (4-9) has pitched. Despite the numbers, and the growing similarity to last year, when Ballard wound up in the bullpen, Oates is prepared to ride out the storm.
"I don't worry about it," he said, referring to Ballard's record. "I'going to keep encouraging him. Jack [pitching coach Al Jackson] is going to keep working with him and we're going to try to help him become the best pitcher he can be."
Getting more starts on the road could be a step in the righdirection, and Ballard hopes to take one Sunday when he pitches the final game before the All-Star break in Yankee Stadium.