DETROIT -- The Jose Mesa question has hung over the Orioles for weeks, and there still is no clear answer.
Mesa was cruising along again yesterday. He had some early run support. He had some decent stuff. But, when it was over, the Detroit Tigers were on top, 7-4, and Mesa was scraping the bottom of the Orioles rotation with seven losses in nine decisions.
What to do?
Nobody knows. It would be simple if Mesa didn't have anything going for him, but he continues to throw well enough to beguile manager Johnny Oates and the Orioles front office. He has a live arm. He has talent. But he also has just four victories in his past 26 starts, dating to May 16, 1991.
He threw well in last week's start against the Boston Red Sox, but the question persists: How long can the Orioles let this go on?
Mesa gave up two runs on three hits over seven innings against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday and was a victim of poor offensive support. He had a 4-1 lead yesterday and fell victim to a string of extra-base hits in the fifth inning. The Tigers tied the game and went on to knock him out in a two-run seventh that also would knock the Orioles (37-24) out of first place in the American League East. They trail the Toronto Blue Jays (39-24) by one game.
Mesa has proved he can get major-league hitters out, but something is keeping him from becoming a quality pitcher. Still more questions. Why can't he win? Why can't anyone figure him out?
"I don't have an answer," Oates said. "The guy has got good stuff. If we had gotten four runs early in his last game, he would have looked great. Things just keep happening."
The Orioles seemed to be on the verge of making a change two weeks ago, before Mesa seduced them again with a victory over the Oakland Athletics and his strong showing against the Red Sox. The trouble is, the club isn't exactly knee-deep in minor-league pitching depth. Left-hander Arthur Rhodes is the top prospect, but Oates and the player development department seem committed to keeping him at Triple-A all year. If there were any easy answers, the questions wouldn't keep lingering.
"I want Roland [Hemond, general manager] to look for somebody better than anybody we've got," said Oates. "If you find me somebody better than Mike Mussina, I'll make that deal right now. We strive to get better every day."
Baseball is a strange game. Winning pitcher Frank Tanana is 5-5 with a 6.02 ERA. He has pitched 14 1/3 innings in his past three starts and allowed 29 base runners, but he has won two games. Mesa has pitched 21 2/3 innings in his past three starts and has given up 11 earned runs (4.57 ERA) on 16 hits and six walks. He has allowed an average of one runner per inning, and he was lucky to come away with one victory. Go figure.
"I thought I was throwing pretty well," Mesa said, "but it's tough when you can't win a game. They give you four runs; you've got to hold it."
The Orioles took advantage of a leadoff walk in the first inning to take the lead on an RBI double by Cal Ripken. They added two runs in the second on a bases-loaded infield single by Joe Orsulak and an ensuing throwing error by shortstop Travis Fryman.
Mesa appeared to be in control. He retired the first six batters he faced, but gave up a leadoff homer to catcher Chad Kreuter in the third.
The Tigers had been playing long ball all weekend. They hit seven home runs in the four-game series, most of them upper-deck shots by the three heavy hitters at the heart of the lineup -- Cecil Fielder, Mickey Tettleton and Rob Deer. Kreuter's home run was a 325-foot fly ball that glanced off the foul pole in the right-field corner, but it counted just as much as the 483-foot roof shot by Deer on Friday night. Maybe more.
Mesa settled down again, giving up one more hit over the next two innings and getting back a run when Randy Milligan singled home Ripken in the fifth. But Mesa yielded a leadoff double to Kreuter in the bottom of the fifth and relinquished the lead on three straight two-out hits.
The Orioles and Tigers entered the late innings tied 4-4, but Mesa gave up a leadoff double to Milt Cuyler in the seventh, and relieverStorm Davis gave up back-to-back RBI singles to Tony Phillips and Lou Whitaker. So much for getting out of Detroit with three victories.
Mesa has a history of letting good performances go bad, but Oates was in no position to pull him out of the game when the three-run lead was under assault in the fifth. The bullpen had been used up during Saturday night's 15-1 loss.
"I can't get somebody up in the bullpen every single inning when Mesa is pitching or get somebody up every inning [Bob] Milacki is pitching," Oates said. "Sooner or later, I've got to let those guys pitch."
Tanana worked seven innings and gave up four runs (three earned) on six hits and six walks. Relief stopper Mike Henneman took over in the eighth and worked two scoreless innings to earn his ninth save.
"We had some chances to score some runs against Tanana," Oates said, "but he made some pitches. He got us not to hit the ball when we needed to hit it."