Mesa's fastball survives surgery Right-hander gains spot in rotation

April 10, 1991|By Peter Schmuck

Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jose Mesa might look like a roll-up-your-sleeves, get-to-work kind of guy, but when he rolls up the sleeve on his right arm, it's hard to imagine how he ever got back to the point where he can work full time in a major-league starting rotation.

There is a large scar on his wrist, where doctors removed a tendon, and another near his elbow, where that tendon was used to replace a damaged ligament. The procedure is known as Tommy John surgery, after the first pitcher to come back successfully from it. Mesa wouldn't be the second or even the third, but his comeback is a miracle of medical science nonetheless.

Tommy John didn't throw 90 mph after the surgery. Mesa does. He has not had to weather a dramatic drop in velocity to keep his baseball career alive.

"When I had my surgery, I knew I would have to work very hard to get back to the big leagues," he said. "For the first two months, I couldn't even move my fingers, it hurt so bad. But my velocity came back. A lot of guys who threw 90 come back and throw 80. I was pretty surprised that I was able to throw so hard."

It wouldn't have surprised anyone if he had faded out of sight after his second arm operation in a span of 11 months (July 1988 and June 1989), but Mesa came back to pitch more than 150 innings last year and make seven major-league starts. Now he is starting this season as a regular member of the starting rotation and is scheduled to pitch tonight at Memorial Stadium.

"It feels pretty good to be the second starter," he said. "It feels good to know they have the confidence in me to give me the ball."

But where did all that confidence come from? Mesa was 3-2 with a 3.86 ERA after he was called up from the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings last year, but he was a combined 6-7 at two minor-league levels and had more walks than strikeouts (27-24) in major-league competition. Why were the Orioles in such a hurry last September to project him as a front-line starter?

"Because he has all of the qualifications to be a good pitcher," pitching coach Al Jackson said. "He has four pitches, and he pitches with power. Look around both leagues, and you're not going to find a whole lot of people with those qualifications."

Of course, there's more to it than that. Mesa displayed an emotional stability on the mound that is unusual for a pitcher of so little major-league experience. He also proved to be resourceful beyond his 24 years.

"You know what impressed me?" Jackson said. "He pitched in Toronto last year and threw almost nothing but breaking balls. Then he came back a week or two later and threw very few breaking balls and beat that club again.

"He was two different pitchers. That let me know he can do a lot of things. If he doesn't have a good fastball, he can go another route. I didn't particularly like the way he threw the first game. It was like the catcher had three fingers taped together. But he found a way to win each time."

Mesa doesn't look very good doing it. He throws hard, but he short-arms the ball, which gives the appearance that he is favoring his recently repaired elbow.

"Not everybody is going to be picture perfect," Jackson said. "There is no one way to do anything. They used to say that Bob Friend couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time, but he won 20 games."

In short, Mesa is not here to do a video on pitching mechanics. He is here to get major-league hitters out, something the Orioles coaching staff seems confident he will do consistently this year.

"The numbers weren't that impressive last year, but we look deeper than that," manager Frank Robinson said. "I liked the way he handled himself on the mound. You look at the way the hitters react. The health thing I don't know because I'm not an expert on those things, but if he stays healthy, he's going to be a good one."

Mesa says he suffered some elbow stiffness early in spring training but that his arm got stronger as camp drew to a close. His statistics reflected that, and he finished the exhibition season with the best ERA (2.88) of any of the club's announced starters.

"My elbow was a little stiff because I didn't play winter ball this year," Mesa said, "but the stiffness was not in the area where the surgery was. If it hurt there, I wouldn't have been able to throw the ball. The last two exhibition games, it felt pretty good."

The injury that kept Ben McDonald out of the Opening Day start pushed Mesa into the No. 2 slot in the rotation, but his presence in the rotation is not by default.

"He deserves to be there," Jackson said. "Now he just has to go out and do it."

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