SEATTLE -- When the pitching shuffle finally came, there was nothing subtle about it. Jeff Ballard and Jeff Robinson are out of the Baltimore Orioles rotation, Dave Johnson is back in and there might be more to come.
Manager John Oates announced before last night's game at the Kingdome that Ballard and Robinson had been moved into the bullpen until further notice. Johnson, who has been waiting for an opening in the rotation for the past couple of weeks, will start tomorrow night.
If the changes were dramatic, they were not entirely unexpected. Ballard is the winningest pitcher on the staff, but his 6-11 record and 5.03 ERA did not make much of a case for keeping him in the rotation. Robinson, at 4-9 and 5.18, has been effective at times, but inconsistent all the time.
"We're winning only 40 percent of our games," Oates said. "You try to make changes to go from 40 to 60 percent. It's not Jeff Robinson's fault. It's not Jeff Ballard's fault. It's the entire team and the coaches and manager and the front office. You just make changes in an effort to win more ballgames."
Oates is taking advantage of the day off on Thursday to go with a four-man rotation temporarily, but he has left Sunday's slot open, which leaves room to wonder whether 1990 first-round draft choice Mike Mussina will soon be in the major leagues.
"There are a lot of possibilities," Oates said. "It could be Roy Smith, or it could be Robinson or Ballard, or it could be somebody else. We're leaving Sunday wide open."
Both Ballard and Robinson took the news without rancor, though Robinson wondered aloud whether an impending incentive plateau might have hastened the decision to remove him from the rotation.
He was set to receive $25,000 when he reached his 20th start, and similar amounts for his 23rd, 26th and 29th starts. He has made 19.
"I don't like it, of course," Robinson said. "One more start and they'd have to pay me money in incentives. I'm sure that figured into it."
He admitted, however, that his inability to pitch consistently was the major factor in his demotion. He had not won since July 5 and had been effective in only one of his last four starts.
"I have no bad feeling toward Johnny," Robinson said. "I know what he has to do. From a manager's standpoint, he has to set up the club for next year. He has to find out what he has to work with.
"I've had a few physical problems that have just recently been taken care of, that I have kept to myself and the club. I think that affected my performance, but not to the point where I was this inconsistent."
Robinson did not say what those physical problems were, but he has been pitching with a groin strain for the past several weeks.
"He has one of the best arms on our staff," Oates said, "but we've got to do something to set more consistency. We can't afford to have someone who gives up seven shutout innings one day and a third of an inning the next. We need people who can give us five out of six good outings.
"This will give Jeff the opportunity to think about and work on throwing strikes. He has great stuff, but that doesn't do you any good if you don't throw it in the strike zone."
Ballard has been through this before. He was relegated to the bullpen at mid-season last year after winning just one of this first 10 decisions, but his lack of success was attributed to the two elbow operations he underwent the previous off season.
He came back to pitch very effectively this spring -- well enough to be named the Opening Day starter -- but his performance also has been very inconsistent of late. He recorded just one out in Saturday's 9-1 loss to the Oakland Athletics.
Ballard was not happy about yesterday's move, but he was not in a position to complain about it. His ERA has never been better than 3.99 this year, and it has been a lot worse for much of the season.
"There are plenty of problems on this team without me stirring things up," he said. "You can write that . . . and I'm not happy about it."
The only one with anything to be happy about was Johnson, who will be making his first start since April 29. He made four April starts before moving to the bullpen and eventually to the disabled list with a deep groin strain.
Johnson was recalled from an injury rehabilitation assignment last week, but he gave up three home runs in his first appearance -- a relief outing against the Oakland Athletics.
"I'm just glad to be there," Johnson said. "In essence, it's time to put up or shut up.
"Hopefully, I'm not in a position where I have to pitch no-hit ball in my first outing. I hope to get 10 or 12 starts the rest of this year and do a good job. But when you go out and say things like I did, it's time to go out and do the job."