PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Orioles manager John Oates had intended to keep the identity of his fifth starter to himself for a few more days, but he decided yesterday that he couldn't -- and shouldn't -- keep it secret any longer.
Right-hander Jose Mesa will enter the starting rotation on April 12 to face the Toronto Blue Jays in the final game of the Orioles' first road series of the season.
Mesa, whose inconsistent performance in 1991 made him a long shot to win a job in the rotation this spring, has not given up a run in 20 innings this spring, but he was still in the dark after Oates announced his pitching plans for the first week of the season Monday. He would have stayed there for a while if Oates had stayed with his original plan and waited until Sunday before making the announcement.
"I just didn't want him wondering or worrying," Oates said. "I didn't want him to spend the week worrying if he was going to be sent out.
"Yesterday, when I walked by him in the clubhouse, I saw a question in his eyes, and I wanted to erase it. I didn't want him to worry another day. For those players I can take worry away from, that's part of my job. I had already made up my mind. He had earned that spot."
Mesa has been the odd man in the spring rotation. He has pitched nine scoreless innings in exhibition play, had combined with Alan Mills for nine perfect innings in a "B" game and had thrown six scoreless innings in a minor-league game last weekend. He will start against the Philadelphia Phillies tomorrow in the Orioles' final game in Florida and work out of the bullpen the first few days of the regular season.
There was little doubt that Mesa would pitch in the major leagues this year, but there was room to wonder whether it would be with the Orioles. He is out of major-league options, so he would have had to clear waivers to be sent back to the minor leagues. The way he has pitched, it was a virtual certainty he would have been claimed by a club with room on its major-league staff.
Still, there were too many pitchers throwing well to assume that Mesa would be kept in the rotation. The club had traded for Storm Davis to strengthen the rotation, and he pitched well enough to warrant the fifth starter's role.
"It surprised me a little bit," Mesa said. "We had six or seven guys looking for one spot. But I know if my arm is feeling good, I know how well I can throw."
It was a difficult choice. Davis will start the season in a long-relief role, though he is one of the highest-salaried players on the club. Mesa also had to beat out left-hander Dennis Rasmussen, who was sent to minor-league camp Monday.
Davis did not complain. He has maintained all along that he is just happy to be back in an Orioles uniform after spending the previous five years with three teams.
"I'm totally content to do whatever John wants me to do," Davis said. "I hope Jose does well, and I'll fill in where I can. Everyone pitched well, and that's great for the ballclub. It's great for the morale of the team to see how well all of us have pitched. It's a shot in the arm. Hopefully, we'll be consistent all year long."
That's where Mesa remains a question mark. He opened the season in the starting rotation a year ago and was the club's most productive starter until mid-May, but his season deteriorated rapidly after that. He won one of his 15 starts between May 16 and Sept. 23, a stretch that also included six weeks in the minor leagues and 16 days on the disabled list with a sore pitching elbow.
"At the beginning, my arm was feeling pretty good," Mesa said. "Then I was throwing the ball all over the place. I don't know what happened."
His physical condition will continue to be a matter of concern until he proves that his arm can withstand the rigors of regular work. He has pitched well at times in the 2 1/2 years since he underwent the second of two elbow operations, but says his arm has never felt better than it has this spring.
The pitching plans appear to be in place, though Oates says that nothing will be final until Sunday. He had hoped to keep two left-handers in the bullpen, but it appears that Mike Flanagan will be the only one to start the season in a relief role.
There has been speculation that a deal is imminent that could change the makeup of the bullpen, but as things stand, Davis will be the only reliever who did not end the 1991 season with the club.