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.
Orioles first: Mercedes singled to right. Devereaux flied out to center fielder Williams. C.Ripken safe on shortstop Espinoza's fielding error, Mercedes to third. Davis singled to center, Mercedes scored, C.Ripken to third. Milligan grounded into double play, second baseman Sax to shortstop Espinoza to first baseman Mattingly, Davis out. 1 run, 2 hits, 1 error, 1 left on. Orioles 1, Yankees 0.
Yankees first: Sax doubled down the left field line. Leyritz flied out to right fielder Evans, Sax to third. Mattingly singled to center, Sax scored. R.Kelly grounded into double play, shortstop C.Ripken to second baseman B.Ripken to first baseman Davis. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 0 left on. Yankees 1, Orioles 1.
Yankees third: Espinoza doubled down the left field line. Williams doubled to right, Espinoza to third, and on right fielder Evans's throwing error, Espinoza scored. Sax singled toward third, Williams to third. Leyritz singled to left, Williams scored, Sax to second. Mattingly flied out to right fielder Evans, Sax to third. R.Kelly remained at bat after second baseman B.Ripken's fielding error on foul pop. R.Kelly homered to center on 3-2 count, Sax, Leyritz and R.Kelly scored. De La Rosa relieved Ballard. Ramos singled to third. Meulens struck out. Lovullo doubled down the right field line, Ramos to third, Ramos out advancing, right fielder Evans to second baseman B.Ripken to catcher Hoiles. 5 runs, 7 hits, 2 errors, 1 left on. Yankees 6, Orioles 1.
Yankees fifth: Leyritz walked. Mattingly singled to center, Leyritz to second. R.Kelly doubled to right, Leyritz scored, Mattingly to third. Ramos hit sacrifice fly to left fielder Mercedes, Mattingly scored. Meulens safe on third baseman Hulett's throwing error, R.Kelly scored. Lovullo flied out to right fielder Evans. Espinoza grounded out to shortstop C.Ripken. 3 runs, 2 hits, 1 error, 1 left on. Yankees 9, Orioles 1.
Orioles sixth: Devereaux singled to center. C.Ripken fouled out to third baseman Lovullo. Davis flied out to left fielder R.Kelly. Milligan walked, Devereaux to second. Evans singled to center, Devereaux scored, Milligan to third. Hulett singled to center, Milligan scored, Evans to second. Hoiles struck out. 2 runs, 3 hits, 0 errors, 2 left on. Yankees 9, Orioles 3.
Orioles eighth: Monteleone pitching. C.Ripken singled to right . Davis grounded into fielder's choice, third baseman Lovullo to second baseman Sax, C.Ripken forced at second. Milligan struck out. Evans singled to left, Davis to second. Hulett homered down the left field line on 1-0 count, Davis, Evans and Hulett scored. Hoiles flied out to right fielder Meulens. 3 runs, 3 hits, 0 errors, 0 left on. Yankees 9, Orioles 6.
Site: Memorial Stadium
Tigers starter: Scott Aldred (2-4, 5.72)
Orioles starter: Mike Mussina (4-5, 3.09)
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)