SEATTLE -- In the wake of his fourth straight loss, a 7-3 setback to the Seattle Mariners Monday night, Jose Mesa got something less than a ringing endorsement from John Oates.
The Orioles manager reiterated last night that he has no plans to make any immediate changes in his starting rotation -- but he didn't exactly slam the door on the possibility either. "We're always trying to make the club better," said Oates, "and if that's ++ an area in which we can get better, then we will."
Mesa (1-5) and Bob Milacki (4-2) have been the odd men out while Oates has centered his rotation around Rick Sutcliffe (5-4), Ben McDonald (6-1) and Mike Mussina (5-1). Both Mesa and Milacki have suffered from the irregular workload, but the difference in their won-lost records has made Mesa the fall guy among those who are clamoring for a change.
Actually, the difference between Mesa's ERA (5.15 after he gave a season-high five runs in 4 1/3 innings Monday night), and those of Milacki (4.83) and Sutcliffe (4.52 entering last night) is not that great. But there is no substitute for winning, and Milacki has won his last three starts while Mesa has struggled, and Sutcliffe threw a couple of early shutouts that indicate he can be the veteran leader the rotation needs.
"He hasn't pitched two shutouts, like Sutcliffe, but he hasn't twice given up six runs in less than three innings either [as Sutcliffe has done]," Oates said of Mesa. "So, he's somewhere in the middle of the road."
Ever since he forced his way on to the Orioles' staff with a perfect spring training (no runs allowed), Mesa has seen his fortunes go in reverse. He seldom is hit consistently hard, and at times appears to be unhittable, but something always seems to happen when he's pitching.
"I feel sorry for him," said veteran pitcher Mike Flanagan, who knows what it's like to both struggle and succeed -- and that the difference between the two is sometimes minuscule. "It seems like there's never an easy inning, or at-bat for him.
"There always seems to be a bloop [hit] somewhere," said Flanagan. "The poor guy hasn't had a chance to get his feet on the ground."
Indeed, until Monday night Mesa had not allowed more than three earned runs in any of his previous six starts. And in both of his trouble innings against the Mariners, the second and fifth, a couple of "seeing-eye" hits played prominent roles.
However, Mesa lives constantly within one pitch of disaster -- and more often than not, he throws it. Monday night it came in the form of a slow, sloppy curveball that Pete O'Brien drilled on one hop off the right-field wall.
The hit drove in the two runs that broke a 2-2 tie in the fifth inning -- and sent Mesa to the showers. Oates has been saying all along "you don't give up on an arm like that" when talking about Mesa, but his confidence in that assessment might be wavering. Even though Mesa has yet to make successive starts in what could be described as a regular rotation, he may be running out of opportunities.
He is next scheduled to start a week from tonight, against the Angels. It will mark the fourth time Mesa has pitched with more than a week between starts.
The situation has hardly been ideal, but Mesa has been unable to force Oates to use him on a more regular basis. When he was asked if he might consider replacing Mesa in the rotation, Oates said only that it wouldn't happen with the present makeup of the staff.
That rules out the possibility of Mesa and Storm Davis, who has worked exclusively out of the bullpen, switching roles. "I don't think that's feasible," said Oates. "We would just be moving people around. We don't have any moves on the docket now."
At the very least, it would appear that if he doesn't make a dramatic turnaround, Mesa's job could be in jeopardy when left-handed reliever Jim Poole is ready to come off the disabled list. Oates said such a move is far from imminent, but beyond that wouldn't speculate.
"He [Poole] will pitch at least three more times [on rehabilitation at Double-A Hagerstown]," said Oates. "We're at least 10 days away from that. We'll just have to wait and see."
When that time comes, Oates will be faced with a very difficult decision. Alan Mills (2-0, 0.77 ERA) has been spectacular since replacing Mark Williamson early in the season, and it is highly improbable he would be sent back to Rochester.
Mesa is out of options, which means he would have to clear waivers before he could be sent to the minor leagues. His current record notwithstanding, that would be a long shot at best.
Mesa hasn't pitched regularly enough for the Orioles to make a thorough evaluation -- but neither has he pitched good enough to overcome the stigma of his last 23 starts in the major leagues.
During that period he is 3-13, and that record is starting to take precedence over his new beginning in spring training.
If Poole's rehabilitation continues on schedule and he's deemed fit to rejoin the Orioles when they return home a week from Friday, Mesa's immediate future could be determined by his start against the Angels next week.