The national cable-television audience was focused on Boston Red Sox pitcher Tom Bolton, who was working on another ESPN no-hitter in the seventh inning. The strong performance of Baltimore Orioles rookie Jose Mesa was going to be little more than a footnote to history.
Then it happened. Cal Ripken broke up the no-hit bid, Mike Devereaux broke up the shutout bid and David Segui broke up the game with a three-run homer that carried the Orioles to a surprising 4-1 victory. But by the time Mesa took center stage, he was nowhere to be found.
Manager Frank Robinson had seen enough for one night. Mesa gave up three hits over seven innings. He also threw 122 pitches, which is more than enough for a pitcher who is just 15 months removed from extensive elbow surgery. When Boston's big night unraveled in the bottom of the seventh, Mesa already was icing the reconstructed right arm that is fast becoming a centerpiece of the Orioles' youth movement.
General manager Roland Hemond had seen enough, too -- enough to concede that Mesa has become a strong candidate for next year's starting rotation.
"He's opening some eyes," Hemond said. "I don't know if I could identify a specific moment when you say to yourself, 'Yeah, he's legitimate for next year,' but it was probably tonight."
Robinson isn't ready to talk about next year, but he was ready to talk about the way Mesa has stepped into a pennant race (albeit from the opposing dugout) and pitched two excellent games against the two teams competing for the division title.
He was coming off a strong 6 2/3 -inning performance against the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday. Last night, he helped them move into a first-place tie with the slumping Red Sox.
"That's why it's nice to get people like him up in early September and send them out against teams that have something to play for," Robinson said. "You get a better read on a guy's performance than you might in a game at the end of the season that doesn't mean anything to either team."
Mesa lost his first two starts, but his pitching lines have improved steadily and his stock has risen with each start.
"Each time out he's gotten better," Robinson said. "Each time out he's taken his good stuff a little further. The last two times, he's been able to avoid that big inning that hurt him earlier."
Perhaps the most impressive thing has been his velocity, which topped out at 92 mph on a couple of fastballs last night. Remember, we're talking about a guy who had a "Tommy John" tendon transplant to replace the ligament in his elbow.
"I didn't see him before he hurt his arm," said pitching coach Al Jackson, "but he couldn't have been any better. I heard what a great arm he had, but I just see what a great arm he has now."
No one can fault the quality of the competition. Mesa stifled the heart of the Blue Jays' lineup for six innings Thursday, then came back to give up just two singles and a bloop double last night against a Red Sox lineup that has been known to score some runs.
He finally gave way to Curt Schilling and eventually Gregg Olson, who pitched a scoreless ninth to record his 32nd save of the year.
Bolton took the loss, though he dominated the punchless Orioles lineup through the sixth inning. Ripken finally delivered a single with one out in the seventh and barely avoided an inning-ending double play when he was caught off first on a lineout by Craig Worthington. Jody Reed's throw to first would have been in time, but it hit Ripken on the hip.
Chris Hoiles followed with a sharp single and Devereaux tied the game with a base hit. Segui followed with his second home run of the year, a low line drive into the left-field bleachers.
"I was sailing along, gave up a hit, then we missed a chance for the double play," Bolton said. "A ball sneaks through the infield, home run . . . bad time for it to happen."
Good time for Mesa, who has worked into the sixth inning or later in each of his first four starts this year, which is an upset in itself, considering how recently he underwent the second of two radical arm operations.
Dr. Charles Silberstein transplanted the tendon into Mesa's right elbow, a procedure that is commonly called "Tommy John surgery" because it first was performed successfully on John, who went on to pitch for 14 years after the operation.
But John was a sinkerball pitcher who did not depend heavily on velocity to get hitters out. Mesa is a power pitcher, so the odds against a successful comeback figured to be even longer.
He might have taken a shutout through the seventh if not for a misplayed pop-up in the sixth inning. Three Orioles converged on a pop fly by Jody Reed, but left fielder Dave Gallagher and Ripken deferred to rookie third baseman Leo Gomez, who badly misjudged the ball and allowed it to drop untouched about a foot inside the left-field line.
Carlos Quintana followed with soft grounder through the right side of the infield to break the scoreless tie.