Jeff Ballard went 18-8 for the Baltimore Orioles in 1989. No left-hander in baseball won more games that season. And, what's more, Ballard beat every team in the American League along the way.
So what was Jeff Ballard doing at Pilot Field on Tuesday night pitching for the Louisville Redbirds? He was searching for the pinpoint control needed to resurrect his career. All indications are that he is getting close.
Ballard ran his winning streak to three games as the Redbirds topped the Buffalo Bisons, 4-1, before 12,477.
Ballard fell one out shy of his second complete game when the Bisons produced three consecutive singles to jam the bases.
The Redbirds brought on closer Mark Grater to face William Pennyfeather. The Bisons countered by pinch-hitting left-hander Al Martin. One thing about Martin: even his outs are exciting. He drove Grater's pitch high and deep to right-center.
It had the look of a game-winning grand slam. But the ball ran out of zip after 400 feet and center fielder Chuck Carr hauled it in at the edge of the warning track.
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The series is tied, 1-1, heading into this afternoon's double-header (1:05, WGR).
It would have been something if Ballard's victory was erased by one monstrous swing of the bat. After all, Ballard had just spent 8 2/3 innings giving Buffalo everything but that one damaging smash.
Nine of the 10 hits the Herd managed were singles. The other was a one-out double.
"They have to get a lot of singles to do anything to you," Ballard said.
Ballard always has conceded no less than his share of hits, even during his standout 1989 season. He allowed 240 hits in 215 innings that year, and it's remarkable that any pitcher, let alone a non-strikeout pitcher, could win 18 games in spite of that ratio.
But many of those hits went for a single base. And Ballard helped his cause by walking only one batter every four innings.
Control? He became the first Oriole to throw a shutout without a walk or a strikeout. You're more likely to see a batter hit for the cycle.
Next thing you knew, Ballard couldn't win a game to save his job in the Baltimore rotation. He started 1990 with a 1-9 record, moved to the bullpen and finished 2-11.
Last season, Ballard was Baltimore's Opening Day starter. By late July, he was a Rochester Red Wing. The Cardinals signed Ballard as an off-season free agent after he refused an outright assignment to the Red Wings.
What happened? Well, Ballard had elbow surgery after 1989 and his delivery was never the same. He began to throw more over the top to take the strain off the joint. His control no longer was deadly. Louisville pitching coach Mark Riggins noticed Ballard's top-heavy delivery during spring training. Riggins wanted to change it right then and there, but you don't mess with a guy contending for a job on the big league roster.
But when Ballard joined the Redbirds out of spring training, Riggins suggested that Ballard slot his arm more to the side. Presto!
"It's just paid off," Ballard said. "My movement on the ball away is a lot better. Another advantage to the new arm slot is that I've been able to throw my curveball for strikes consistently. That's been a good complement to my game."
Ballard has also become less predictable. For instance, it seemed he always threw his fastball right around the knees. That's a good place for it -- until the hitters catch on.
"He'll throw the high fastball now just to give the hitters a different sight plane," Riggins said. "And he'll throw a few more back-door breaking balls."
In essence, Ballard (5-4, 2.55) has hitters guessing again.
It wasn't long ago that Steve Cooke, Ballard's opposing starter Tuesday night, also had hitters befuddled. That was before Cooke went on the disabled list with tenderness in his left (throwing) shoulder.
Cooke (2-1) remains in search of his pre-DL form. He surrendered eight hits, four walks and four runs over 5 2/3 innings. The Redbirds, batting .232 as a team, totaled five hits and three runs in the first inning.
Cooke has allowed 13 hits and eight walks in 9 2/3 innings since coming off the DL.