ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It was only a "B" squad game, so the numbers from the box score won't be included in the official spring training statistics.
There wasn't even a winner and loser, even though the Orioles didn't allow the St. Louis Cardinals even one base runner as two pitchers combined for a "perfect" game in a seven-inning scoreless tie.
But although this may have been an unofficial exercise, it was a lot more than that for Jose Mesa. Before the contest was concluded, the right-hander had put an exclamation point behind the message he has been sending all spring.
Considered an outsider at best to make the Opening Day roster, Mesa is forcing his way onto the staff and possibly into the starting rotation.
Manager John Oates says Mesa has been in the picture since the first day of training camp, but yesterday he gave him his most ringing endorsement yet. "He's in the starting rotation," said Oates, admitting that the rotation at the moment includes six pitchers -- all of them right-handed. Bob Milacki, Ben McDonald, Mike Mussina, Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis have been the acknowledged leaders, also since Day 1.
"There's no such thing as a fourth or fifth starter," said Oates. "I'm just looking for five guys who can start."
Now, for the first time, it appears that the loser in the competition for starting jobs will push somebody out of the bullpen. And barring a sudden turnaround, Mesa will be one of the 10 pitchers the Orioles take north.
He has yet to allow a run this spring -- through nine innings of regular exhibition play and the five he worked in yesterday's "B" game. No one has been more impressed than Oates.
The manager was asked how hard Mesa threw while retiring 15 straight batters in yesterday's early morning game, witnessed mostly by people in uniform and scouts with their radar guns. "I don't know how hard he was throwing," said Oates.
"Some of the guys [scouts] had their guns out, but I didn't hear any numbers. All I know is that he was throwing hard enough that I didn't have to ask. I haven't had to ask all spring."
Alan Mills pitched the two perfect innings after Mesa, and he, too, drew raves from Oates. "I didn't have to ask how hard he was throwing either," said Oates.
"The only disappointing thing was that I wanted to see them throw out of the stretch and I didn't get a chance," said Oates.
In all likelihood, Mills does not fit into the picture for the opening of the season, primarily because he has an option left. But the 25-year-old right-hander obtained from the New York Yankees three weeks ago continues to make an impression and could force his way onto the staff before the season is over.
Mesa is a different story. He has no options left, and it is a virtual certainty he would not clear waivers. That might not have been the case after last season, but his performance in spring training removes any doubt that the Orioles either have to keep him or lose him.
Given those possibilities, there's no question about Oates' feelings. "I've said all along that you don't give up on that kind of an arm," he said.
"Last year, when he was throwing 92 mph, he told you guys he was only about 80 percent," said Oates. "I made a wisecrack remark to the effect that 'if he's only 80 percent, then if he gets to 100 percent he'd be throwing 130 [mph].'
"It was just a smart remark, but maybe he was right -- maybe he was only throwing 80 percent. He's healthy now, and he said he wasn't completely healthy at the end of last year. That might be the only difference."
The emergence of Mesa puts Oates in the position of having to make at least two difficult decisions -- who he drops from his bulky rotation, and who gets bumped in the bullpen. The possibility of a trade has existed all spring, but neither Oates nor the front office has been in a hurry.
"We're going to have to watch them pitch the rest of the way and see what happens," said Oates. "These kind of decisions aren't tough. In the past, we've had seven candidates for 10 jobs -- that's when it's tough. It's a lot better to have 12 or 13 candidates for 10 jobs."
After a superlative year last season, Todd Frohwirth has been inconsistent in his five appearances this spring. And Mark Williamson has worked all spring under the assumption he could be used in a trade.
With Dennis Rasmussen in line as a left-handed reliever if Jim Poole is not ready to start the season, which is a strong possibility at this point, the bullpen could undergo a 40 percent turnover.
Oates won't make any commitments at this point, but it's rapidly becoming obvious that both Rasmussen and Mesa figure in the pitching equation. They figure to make the last two weeks of
spring training interesting for all concerned.