Mesa's arm talks a good ballgame

JOHN EISENBERG

March 26, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Jose Mesa talks to his pitching arm, which doesn't make him half as crazy as you would think.

The big, ugly thing is talking back to him this spring.

Sort of.

Moving a hand along his forearm, gently fingering the old scars from the two operations on his elbow, Mesa asks the big question.

"Tu me dejaras pichar esta ano, amigo?" he says. You going to let me pitch this year, friend?

No answer.

He tries again. "Digame, y todo va a estar bien?" C'mon, talk to me, is everything going to be OK?

Nothing.

His right arm just dangles there alongside his tall, broad body, doing a perfect Clint Eastwood impression minus only the cigarette: strong and silent and popping with attitude.

Which is a good thing, of course. If it ever did up and talk back to him -- "I don't know if I'm gonna let you pitch this year, Jose, and incidentally, I want to go see 'Basic Instinct' tonight" -- Mesa would know that all these years of arm paranoia were getting to him.

The arm does talk in its own way, though. This spring it is shouting with 95-mph fastballs.

"We're getting along great this spring," Mesa said yesterday.

Why not? The Orioles were ready to forget about Mesa. Signing Rick Sutcliffe and trading for Storm Davis left little room in the rotation for a pitcher with such an inconsistent history. But he is the 500-pound butterfly of camp, refusing to go away, muscling himself back into contention for a spot.

He hasn't allowed a run in nine innings of "A" game exhibitions, and threw five perfect "B" innings last weekend. Manager John Oates is still talking about the two relief innings he threw against the Yankees last week. His arm was really talking back.

"[Catcher Mark] Parent came into the dugout saying he'd never caught a harder fastball in his career," Oates said. "It was something to see."

Oates was still talking about it the other day.

"What are you going to do with him?" someone asked.

The manager practically choked. "What do you mean, 'What am I going to do?' he said. "I don't have to 'do' anything. Mesa is wearing our uniform and throwing fastballs at 95. You don't have to 'do' anything with that. You just put him on the mound."

Although it's not that simple, and his place in the rotation isn't assured, Mesa smiled at the story.

"I like that," he said. "I like it when you pitch so well they don't know what they're going to do with you."

There is a caveat, of course. Mesa, 25, has tantalized before. After a strong finish in 1990, he won four quick games in 1991. The rest of his season was horrible. He finished 6-11 with a 5.97 ERA. Ouch.

"I don't know what happened," he said. "I just stopped throwing strikes. Just kind of lost it."

Hearing that, you could argue he needs more time in the minors to better his craft. Pitching coach Dick Bosman admits Mesa is a pitcher you need to stay on, that, unsupervised, his mechanics can wobble.

But his biggest problem last year was recurring elbow pain, which he didn't admit to until September, apparently thinking the club might give up on him. His fastball was 7 mph slower, a candidate for T-ball in the majors.

It was just the latest of the many arm adventures he has experienced since feeling the first twinge in Rochester in 1988. He had surgery that year, and a year later.

He has talked to his arm ever since. The pain has come and gone.

"This arm business is weird," he said, looking down at his.

He spent this past off-season rehabbing in the weight room at Children's Hospital in Baltimore, and something went very right. He hasn't been in the trainer's room at all this spring.

"Used to be in there every day," he said. "No more."

If that keeps up, and he continues pitching near this level, he will take the place in the rotation that had Davis' name on it. The 500-pound butterfly strikes.

Whether he keeps the job is another matter. The Orioles have been burned before by the shimmer of his potential. But he is learning not to give away his curveball with his windup, and throwing truly without pain for the first time since his two operations. Interesting.

You will know the Orioles' luck is turning if his spring develops into a season. It's what happens in lucky years: Sore-armed pitchers throwing 95 mph bully into the blueprint. Talking to their arms. Talking sweet. Vamonos, baby. Let's go.

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