MILWAUKEE -- The Orioles were not about to let Jose Mesa lose this one.
Mesa pitched just five innings last night, but he got a lot of help from his friends and got away with a 7-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers in the opener of a three-game series at County Stadium.
He didn't know whom to thank first:
* Shortstop Cal Ripken turned a close game into a blowout with pair of home runs to assure that Mesa would get a victory for only the third time in 11 starts this year.
* Catcher Jeff Tackett made a perfect pickoff throw to catch B.J. Surhoff at third base and defuse a promising Brewers rally in the fourth inning.
* Storm Davis pitched four scoreless innings to get a hard-earned save after manager Johnny Oates pulled Mesa with a three-hitter working in the sixth inning.
The Orioles won their second game in a row and moved to within a half-game of the first-place Toronto Blue Jays, who were rained out against the Texas Rangers last night.
Mesa was all smiles after the game, enjoying the fruits of an overpowering performance for the first time this year, but he left in a huff when Oates came to the mound.
"I thought he took me out a little early," Mesa said. "I thought he was going to tell me to bear down on the next hitter, but he told me he was taking me out. I wanted to stay longer."
Oates had his reasons. He's seen this game before -- with a much different ending. Mesa had walked the leadoff batter in the sixth, and Oates took him out for his own protection, hoping to send Mesa to bed feeling good about himself for a change.
"He's been a little snakebitten," Oates said. "The last couple of times, it's been bang, bang, bang before we've had a chanceto get anyone up in the bullpen. Tonight, I wanted him to get a good night's sleep."
That was a team effort. The game was still in doubt when Ripken hit back-to-back home runs in the fifth inning and the seventh to break it open. The first homer hastened the departure of Brewers starter Jaime Navarro. The second -- a three-run game-breaker -- came off reliever James Austin.
"Any time you hit two home runs, it's a great game personally," said Ripken, who extended his hitting streak to 11 games and raised his average to a season-high .292. "But it helped us win the first game of the series against a hot ballclub. I've been swinging the bat pretty well lately, and I hit a couple in the right spot."
He gave the club a scare when he jammed his heel legging out a ground ball in the first inning, but he shook it off and reached base in each of his three ensuing at-bats.
"Doesn't that guy ever take a day off?" said Brewers manager Phil Garner with a sigh.
Ripken has been on a tear for the past month. He broke a 16-game hitting streak just a few days before beginning this 11-game run. He hit .365 during the past 31 games and is hitting .489 during his current hitting streak. The home runs were his ninth and 10th of the season. The four RBI raised his season total vTC to 38. He doesn't rank among the league leaders in either department, but he is beginning to assert his offensive leadership on a club that didn't really need it until now.
"Our team is just playing well all around," Ripken said. "We've gotten great production from the first two spots in our lineup and we're playing really well as a team. A lot of people thought we were a fluke early on, but we've built confidence in ourselves. The longer you play well, the more your confidence grows."
The pickoff play by Tackett had to give Mesa a confidence boost. The Orioles held a two-run lead, but the Brewers had put runners at second and third, thanks in part to a throwing error by Mesa.
Tackett noticed that Surhoff was taking a long lead and he signaled to third baseman Leo Gomez that he was going to throw down there. Then he set up for a pitch outside and gunned down Surhoff with a perfect throw.
"I just thought he was off too far," said Tackett, thrust into a starting role by the injury to Chris Hoiles. "I figured if he was off that far again, I'd give it a whirl."
The play defused a dangerous situation and Mesa kept things together until Davis took over with a runner at first and no one out in the sixth.
Again, Mesa was on trial. He had pitched decently in his previous two appearances, but not well enough to improve on a dismal record that included just four victories in 13 months (26 starts). The bottom line was beginning to catch up with him, and it didn't look too good when he gave up a hit to the first batter he faced.
Darryl Hamilton dropped a leadoff single into center field and quickly stole second base, setting himself up to score on a pair of ground outs to second base. But Mesa recovered nicely and held off the Brewers while his teammates went to work on Navarro.
Oates has long contended that a little offensive help would go a long way toward making Mesa a more successful pitcher. He got four runs in the early innings, and this time he did not give them back.