The Baltimore Orioles are banking heavily on the continuing development of their youthful starting rotation, but right-hander Jose Mesa appears to be going in the opposite direction.
Mesa turned in another ragged performance last night, lasting four innings in a 6-5 loss to the last-place Cleveland Indians at Memorial Stadium.
How ragged was it? Mesa gave up six runs on six hits and six walks to stake the Indians to a four-run lead, and it would have been worse if outfielder Joe Orsulak had not tied a club record with three outfield assists in the first five innings.
The Orioles staged a dramatic, but unsuccessful comeback attempt, and their three-game winning streak officially ended when Mike Devereaux grounded into a game-ending double play with the bases loaded in the ninth.
Mesa fell to 5-10 after beginning the season as the most effective pitcher in the Orioles rotation. His ERA rose to 5.96, which doesn't exactly make him look like an automatic candidate for the 1992 rotation anymore.
"I think it's very obvious that he's not nearly the pitcher that he was at the end of last year and the beginning of this year," manager John Oates said. "We have to find out why.
"The way he started out the year, it looked like he was going to be our ace. Somehow, we've got to get him back on board."
The Indians got a strong effort from rookie right-hander Charles Nagy, who gave up a two-run homer to Cal Ripken in the first inning and then settled down to pitch eight solid innings and win his ninth game of the year.
Right-hander Tommy Kramer made his major-league debut for the Indians in the ninth, but stayed around only long enough to give up back-to-back doubles to Ripken and Sam Horn and a walk to Randy Milligan to bring the tying run to the plate with no one out. Steve Olin came on to give up two hits and complicate the situation further, but finally got the dramatic double-play ball to record his 11th save.
The Orioles had held out for three days, but they finally registered their 82nd defeat and guaranteed themselves a losing season.
Though Mesa was anything but sharp in his second start since coming back from the disabled list, club officials say the elbow inflammation that sidelined him from Aug. 21 to Sept. 7 is no longer a problem.
"There was plenty of velocity up there," Oates said, "but there wasn't anything consistently in the strike zone. It's tough to pitch when you throw about 33 percent strikes. That makes it tough."
Mesa walked two batters in the first inning, and both of them scored. He walked two more in the second, and one of them scored. He allowed eight runners in the first three innings and survived that long largely on the strength of someone else's arm.
Orsulak's three assists in a single game tied a club record for outfielders that was equaled most recently by John Shelby in 1983. His major-league-leading 17 assists also equal a club record for outfielders, set by Chuck Diering in the Orioles' inaugural season of 1954.
Orsulak got rookie James Thome trying to stretch a leadoff single in the second inning. Then he threw out Albert Belle doing the same in the third for his 16th assist of the year. The record-tying assist came with the bases loaded in the fifth, when Orsulak settled under a medium fly ball by Jose Gonzalez and threw out Reggie Jefferson trying to tag up and score from third.
His defensive performance notwithstanding, the Orioles fell behind on a run-scoring double by Belle and a sacrifice fly by Jefferson in the first, but got even on a milestone, two-run homer by Ripken in the bottom of the inning.
It was the 28th home run of the year by Ripken, matching a career high set during his Rookie of the Year season in 1982. The two RBI raised his season total to 94, his highest since 1987.
But the Indians took advantage of Mesa's inability to find the plate again in the second, when Felix Fermin followed the two walks with a two-out, RBI single to put Cleveland back in the lead, 3-2.
Mesa settled down temporarily, but his control problems returned in the fifth. The Indians loaded the bases on a single and two more walks with no one out before Oates brought on long reliever Dave Johnson to try and restore order.
Johnson struck out Belle to get within a double-play grounder of escaping the jam, but Jefferson dropped a bloop single into left field and Carlos Martinez bounced a sharp one-hopper off the wrist of Leo Gomez for a two-run double that gave the Indians a 6-2 lead.
Indians first: Cole walked. Fermin struck out. Cole stole second. Baerga walked. Belle doubled down the right field line, Cole scored, Baerga to third. Jefferson hit sacrifice fly to left fielder Orsulak, Baerga scored. Martinez struck out. 2 runs, 1 hit, 0 errors, 1 left on. Indians 2, Orioles 0.