SEATTLE -- Jose Mesa tried to help the Orioles out of a tough situation last night, but instead he might have helped the club come to a difficult decision.
Mesa, who moved up in the rotation to fill in for flu-ridden Mike Mussina, lasted 4 1/3 innings and gave up 10 hits on the way to 7-3 loss to the Seattle Mariners. He has lost five of his first six decisions and might be close to losing his place in the starting rotation.
Manager Johnny Oates wouldn't go that far. He indicated that Mesa still was scheduled to pitch next Tuesday night against the California Angels. But he seemed to leave the door open to a pitching move that might cost the 26-year-old right-hander his place on the Orioles roster.
"We're always striving to make the ballclub better," he said. "If that's an area we can get better in, we'll get better in it. We just want to get better."
What does that mean?
It could mean Mesa will be moved aside as soon as left-hander Jim Poole is ready to return to the bullpen, which probably would mean that Storm Davis would move into the starting rotation. It could also mean something will happen sooner.
"I'm not going to comment on any pitching moves," Oates said. "I don't have any on the docket. Something could happen, but then again, we might sit here until Jim is ready."
Mesa looked like a victim of circumstance until last night. He had not given up more than three earned runs in any of his six previous starts and the Orioles had scored more than three runs behind him only once. But the Mariners scored twice in the second inning and three times in the fifth to knock him out of the game.
Designated hitter Pete O'Brien played a starring role in both rallies, leading off the second with a home run and breaking a 2-2 tie with a two-run single in the fifth. Mesa was charged with five earned runs, ballooning his ERA to 5.15.
"There hasn't been a lot of difference [between Mesa's recent performances]," Oates said. "He's not throwing terrible and he's not throwing great. It's always in the middle. He gives up three or four runs and goes five or 5 1/3 innings and we end up getting beat 7-3. Just for comparisons sake, he hasn't pitched two shutouts like Sutcliffe, but he hasn't given up six runs two times in a row either. He's just in the middle."
Nevertheless, he is in the middle of a career crisis. If the club decides he no longer fits into the starting rotation, his future in the organization will be uncertain. There is no place for him in the bullpen and he is out of options, so he would have to clear waivers to be sent back to the minor leagues.
The situation is not critical for the Orioles yet. The need for a spot starter arises only once in the next 12 games, so the easy answer might be to give Mesa one more chance and then bring Poole off the disabled list.
The situation has been aggravated by the club's recent struggles. The Orioles have lost six of their past eight games, though they still own the best record in baseball. They could have won last night if they had cashed in on any of a series of promising opportunities in the middle innings.
Glenn Davis twice came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out, but came up empty-handed. The club had 10 base runners over a four-inning span -- from the fourth inning through the seventh -- and scored just one run.
"It's just that way sometimes," said first baseman Randy Milligan, who doubled and collected two walks in five trips to the plate. "You can always look back and say, 'What if?' Sometimes, you just have to look at the whole picture."
In the big picture, Seattle rookie Dave Fleming did what Mesa could not. He worked out of trouble. He got the big out whenever he needed it. That's why -- at 6-1 -- he's the winningest rookie pitcher in baseball.
Of course, the Mariners got a major break before the game even started. Oates was forced to juggle his starting rotation for the series when Mussina came down with a severe stomach virus over the weekend and had to be pushed back to Friday night's series opener against the Oakland Athletics. Mesa moved up a day to take his place and Sutcliffe will move up three days to make tonight's start.
The Orioles staked Mesa to an early lead when Milligan lined a double off the left-center field fence with one out in the top of the second and came home on a two-out double by third baseman Leo Gomez.
But that lead didn't survive the next Mariners hitter to come to the plate. O'Brien led off the second with his 11th home run, a line drive to right that didn't need any help from the cozy Kingdomensions to get out of the park.
O'Brien isn't exactly tearing up the league. He came into the game with a .188 batting average and a .219 on-base percentage, but when he does hit the ball, he hits it a long way. He has 28 hits -- 15 of them for extra bases.
Mesa ran into some bad luck after that, some of it of his own making. The Mariners went on to load the bases with three consecutive hits, but one of them was a looper into center field and the other a sacrifice bunt attempt that Mesa misplayed into a hit.
Omar Vizquel laid down the bunt to move the runners up, but beat it out when Mesa looked too long at third and threw too late to first. Harold Reynolds followed with a sacrifice fly that gave the Mariners the lead.
It could have been worse, especially after Cal Ripken pulled Milligan off the bag at first with a double-play relay, but Mesa worked out of the inning.