Joe Orsulak gave Jose Mesa all the assists he could muster last night. They weren't enough to keep the righthander from sinking a little deeper into a sea of uncertainty.
Manager John Oates gave Mesa every possible chance to survive, probably one more than was prudent, but the Cleveland Indians eventually got more opportunities than they could run their way out of on the basepaths. The result was a 6-5 loss for the Orioles, made all the more agonizing by a three-run flourish in the ninth inning after a potential rally in the eighth was squelched by a gamble that backfired on third base coach Cal Ripken Sr.
When Mesa finally left, with the bases cluttered and nobody out in the fifth, the Orioles were on the verge of seeing a 3-2 deficit grow to 6-2. By that time, the Indians had put 12 runners on base, six via walks, and Mesa had thrown only 34 strikes in 72 pitches.
"I was very patient with him," admitted Oates, "because he's a guy I have to see pitch. I have to find out if he can be one of the five starters next year."
Mesa's situation is different than, say, Arthur Rhodes, who was quickly removed in the fifth inning two nights earlier with a 5-2 lead. Oates said then that he wanted to learn as much as he could without jeopardizing the possibility of a win.
Last night, no doubt because Mesa is more experienced and more is expected of him, Oates was willing to go a step closer to jeopardy. "The way he finished up last year, and the way he started out this year, I think everybody envisioned him being our ace [this year]," said Oates.
"Somehow we've got to get him back on board. He's not pitching the way he was at the end of last year, or the beginning of this year. Whether it's mechanical or mental, I have no idea right now."
However, he's convinced Mesa's health is not a question. "His arm's OK," said Oates. "You can't throw 90-plus [mph] all the time if your arm hurts. It's tough to see him throw with that kind of velocity and not be able to get hitters out."
Had it not been for Orsulak, Mesa's mess could have been even worse. Playing in leftfield, he threw out two runners trying to stretch singles into doubles -- and then he ended the fifth inning by throwing a runner out at home after catching a fly ball.
"I guess they think I can't throw," said Orsulak, who leads all major-league outfielders with 17 assists and tied two club
records last night.
Orsulak's season total ties the team record, set by Chuck Diering in the Orioles' first year, 1954. His three assists in one game match the feat of John Shelby, Sept. 11, 1983, in New York.
"There are outfielders with great arms who don't get many assists because nobody runs on them," said Oates. "And there are outfielders with terrible arms who don't get assists because they can't throw anybody out.
"And then, there's outfielders like 'Slack.' He doesn't have a great arm and he doesn't have great accuracy -- he just throws people out. He's a very aggressive outfielder who charges the ball very well."
To the unassuming Orsulak, last night was just another night at ** work. He gave Bill Ripken credit for making two good plays at second, and catcher Bob Melvin for his catch and lunging tag at home plate.
When it was suggested that his 17 assists seemed to be an indication that he doesn't get the respect he deserves, Orsulak shrugged it off. "That's fine with me."
After Cal Ripken Jr. hit his 28th home run, a two-run blast in the first inning that enabled him to match his career-high, the Orioles were completely shut down by Charles Nagy (9-12) until the eighth inning. Three singles, the last by Orsulak, appeared to give the Orioles the chance to get the tying run to the plate in the person of Ripken.
But in the third base coaching box Cal Sr. sent David Segui sliding into the third out at home plate as Jose Gonzalez made a powerful throw. "It never entered my mind that he wouldn't score," said Oates. "I didn't even think the throw would go to the plate."
It did, and instead of hitting with the bases loaded, Cal Jr. led off the next inning and doubled off rookie Tommy Kramer, a rookie flame-thrower who made his major-league debut and didn't retire any of the three hitters he faced.
The fallacy of the predestined rally comes into effect here, however, since the game would have been played differently had Ripken come to the plate representing the tying run in the eighth, instead of as the leadoff hitter in the ninth.
"We had a chance to win right up until the last pitch of the game," said Oates. Eventually Mike Devereaux hit the last pitch into a double play, after the Indians missed a similar opportunity when third baseman Jim Thome booted a grounder hit by pinch-hitter Glenn Davis.
The loss ended the Orioles' modest three-game win streak and left them with a 4-3 edge over the Indians in season play, going
into the second of a four-game series tonight.
Brady Anderson was 2-for-2 after entering the game as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning. He is now hitting .500 (10-for-20) since returning from Rochester.