NEW YORK -- Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jeff Ballard didn't want it to end this way, but he knows that there is a chance that he made his last start for the club last night.
It was not a good one.
The New York Yankees scored five times in the third inning to knock him out of the game and went on to complete a three-game sweep with a 9-6 victory over the Orioles at Yankee Stadium.
Ballard was making his first major-league start since July 27, when he made his last start before the Orioles optioned him to the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings for five weeks. He was hoping to go out with a flash rather than a fizzle, but a three-run home run by Roberto Kelly brought his evening to an premature conclusion.
Five of the six Yankees he faced in the third inning hit safely, though not all of them hit the ball as solidly as Kelly, whose drive to center field cleared the fence about 400 feet from home plate. The Yankees continued to hammer away at reliever Francisco de la Rosa, scoring three runs in the fifth to take a 9-1 lead.
Ballard gave up six runs (five earned) on seven hits over 2 1/3 innings to close out the season with a 6-12 record and a 5.60 ERA. But manager John Oates said before the game that Ballard probably would come back next year with a chance to make the rotation whether he pitched well last night or not.
"I think that as the ballclub shapes up right now, if I'm the manager, he'll be one of the guys who will be considered for the starting rotation," Oates said.
But the ballclub doesn't figure to shape up the same way when the Orioles assemble for spring training in February. There already is talk that the club will go to the free-agent market in search of a solid starting pitcher. Ben McDonald, Mike Mussina and Bob Milacki seem certain to be in the rotation. Jose Mesa is the front-runner to fill another spot.
This doesn't bode well for Ballard, and he knows it. He's been sent back to the minor leagues once and he knows it will be easier for the club to make that decision next year than it was last July. But Oates isn't ready to jump to that conclusion.
"A lot can happen in this game," he said. "There have been a lot of guys who were erased from a roster and came back to be stars. Being sent down to give us the opportunity to look at other players doesn't always mean that's the end."
Oates doesn't know how to figure Ballard. In spring training this year, he was one of the most effective pitchers on the staff. He was the Opening Day starter, but his performance deteriorated rapidly after the regular season began.
"I realize that spring training is a whole different game," Oates said, "but Jeff Ballard pitched as well as anyone. He changed speeds well. He kept the ball down. He pitched very well.
"If you look at the [regular season] stats, you'd probably say that Jeff Ballard was terrible, but I can't sit here and convince myself that he pitched as poorly as his numbers. I haven't written Jeff off."
Ballard has put himself in a precarious position. If he comes back to spring training with the Orioles, the burden will be on him to prove that his 8-23 record over the past two seasons was not indicative of his ability.
He can no longer fall back on his 18-victory performance in 1989 or the two elbow operations that preceded his 2-11 performance in 1990. He pitched well enough in spring training this year to show that his arm was sound, but not well enough during the regular season to guarantee himself a place on the Orioles 1992 roster.
Last night's performance was another case of the pitching line looking worse than the pitcher. Alvaro Espinoza opened the third with a ground ball double down the left-field line and Bernie Williams brought him home with a blooper to right that almost was caught by Bill Ripken. Two balls that weren't hit well. One run.
Steve Sax followed with a nubber down the third base line that was bobbled by Leo Gomez and ruled a hit before Jim Leyritz gave the Yankees a 3-1 lead with an RBI single through the left side of the infield.
Ballard got Don Mattingly to fly out to right and came close to getting Kelly on a foul pop down the right-field line, but the ball glanced off Bill Ripken's glove for an error. Kelly stayed at the plate and launched his 20th home run of the year.
"They just found the right holes," Ballard said. "They only hit one ball hard, but they got five runs out of that."
The Orioles would drop behind by eight runs, but they came back to score twice in the sixth and three times on a three-run homer by Tim Hulett in the eighth.
Hulett, who entered the game at third base after Gomez left with a stiff neck in the fourth inning, homered for the first time since June 23.