NEW YORK -- It may not have made a difference, but on a day Jose Mesa was two pitches shy of a potential win, Johnny Oates came up short one left-hander in the bullpen.
The result was a 3-1 loss to the Yankees that kept the Orioles from taking over second in the American League's Eastern Division.
Except for a solo home run by Kevin Maas in the fourth inning and a double by Roberto Kelly in the eighth, Mesa was effective throughout the 7 1/3 innings he worked. But when Andy Stankiewicz, who tortured the Orioles all weekend, opened the eighth with a ground single to left, both Mesa and Oates were in trouble.
This was the first time that having only one left-hander (Mike Flanagan) available in relief played a significant role in Oates' strategy. It undoubtedly won't be the last before Jim Poole comes off the disabled list at least a month down the road.
"If I could have made all the moves, I would've brought Poole in right there to face [Don] Mattingly," said Oates. "Then, even though [Roberto] Kelly is 3-for-3 off him, I would've had Frohwirth pitch to Kelly and then brought Flanagan in for the rest of the left-handers [Mel Hall, Kevin Maas, Dion James and Matt Nokes]."
Unable to make all the moves, Oates elected to let Mesa stay for two more hitters. The right-hander got Mattingly, whom he handled easily all day, on a soft fly ball, but let Kelly off a 1-and-2 hook.
"I was surprised I got such a good pitch to hit," said Kelly, who was hitless in three at-bats before rifling a double to right-center field to drive in the winning run. Oates couldn't say he was surprised, based on what he had seen, but he certainly didn't want to see the pitch Mesa threw.
"In the three-game series, we got a lot of balls up [in the strike zone]," said Oates. "And they [the Yankees] are high-ball hitters."
Mesa was upset with himself for both the pitch to Kelly -- and the one Maas hit four innings earlier. "The one to Kelly was supposed to be up and in, the one to Maas was supposed to be away, but they both were over the middle, where they could hit them," said Mesa.
"His stuff was real good again," Oates said of Mesa, "but he had balls sailing all over the place."
And even though he didn't walk anybody, Mesa realized his control was his undoing. "When you're 3-and-2, 2-and-1 all the time," he said, "they know what's coming."
In both instances (the pitches to Maas and Kelly), Oates felt the pitch selection, as well as the location, might have been better. But he wouldn't second-guess either Mesa or catcher Chris Hoiles.
"That would be easy to do after the fact," said Oates. "But that's where experience comes into play. All of our scouting reports say, if you're going to throw Maas a fastball, you've got to come inside with it. If you get it out away from him, that's where he can hit it."
Mesa was trying to go outside (and ended up in the middle of the plate) because Maas had hammered a long foul ball into the seats down the right-field line on the pitch before. "But," said Oates, "that was the only place Maas could've hit that pitch -- foul. The next pitch was one he could hit fair -- and out of the park.
"That's where experience comes in. And where a pitcher like [Rick] Sutcliffe can be invaluable. There are certain situations in a game where you never give in to a hitter.
"In that spot, with two outs, nobody on base and a guy [James] on deck who isn't likely to hit a ball out of the park, Sutcliffe isn't going to throw a guy a pitch he can hit out of the park. I'm not saying I like walking people, but there are certain times when you make sure you don't give in to a hitter."
The situation with Maas was obviously one of those times, but Mesa's pitch to Kelly was simply a mistake. And one of two pitches that spoiled an otherwise strong performance by Mesa.
"Sometimes it happens like that," Mesa said later, still mentally kicking himself. "Maybe the next time it will be different."
But what makes it even more painful for Mesa is the fact that the "next time" won't come for 10 days. Because of Thursday's off-day, Mesa will skip a turn and won't make his next start until a week from Wednesday, against the Minnesota Twins.
Having missed a chance to move into second place by losing two of three to the Yankees, the Orioles now try to regroup against the Twins in Minnesota, the last stop on this three-city trip. They are already assured of their first winning record in April since 1985. The Orioles nevertheless would like to take some momentum home with them at the end of the week.
After playing 14 of their first 21 games on the road, the Orioles return Friday to open a 10-game home stand. That also begins a stretch that has them playing 16 of 21 games in Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The new digs have been friendly thus far, with the Orioles winning six of their first seven at OPACY. A winning record on this road trip (they're 4-2 so far) would not only help the Orioles add to the enthusiasm the new park has generated, but also help keep the Toronto Blue Jays (currently three games ahead ) within hailing distance.