It almost has become a ritual. Jose Mesa makes a start, and everyone wonders if he'll ever make another for the Orioles.
The question presented itself again yesterday, when Mesa gave up nine hits and five earned runs in four innings and took the fall in a 9-2 loss to the Kansas City Royals at Camden Yards.
He had pitched well in his previous start, but the exception may not be enough to prove that he still belongs in the Orioles rotation. Manager Johnny Oates left open the possibility that a change could be made before Mesa's turn comes up again next week.
"We've got some time to talk," Oates said.
If this is beginning to sound familiar, there's a good reason. Mesa appeared to be on the way out of the rotation a few weeks ago, but he rebounded enough to justify the manager's patience. Plus, there was no one waiting to take his place.
Things have changed since then. Left-hander Jim Poole seems close to returning to the major-league bullpen, which could push someone into the starting rotation. Storm Davis seems the obvious choice, but Alan Mills also is a possibility. Rochester Red Wings starter Richie Lewis is pitching well enough to warrant a chance if Oates decides to keep his long-relief corps intact.
"We've got a couple of guys who could help," Oates said. "Jim Poole threw the ball very well the night before last, and Richie Lewis is doing well. We've also got some guys in the bullpen who are very flexible. They're pitching almost five innings per outing as it is."
Change appears imminent. The club cannot afford to ignore Mesa's erratic performance much longer, even if his arm still seems to hold promise. The Orioles are in a pennant race -- though Oates doesn't like to acknowledge it -- and the fifth
starter will become more important as the season progresses.
Mesa (3-8, 5.23 ERA) wasn't the only Orioles pitcher under the gun yesterday, as the Royals hammered out 19 hits and took the decisive game of the three-game series. Mills gave up two runs on six hits over four innings. Mike Flanagan gave up a hit to each of the four batters he faced in the ninth inning.
It wasn't pretty. Royals third baseman Gregg Jefferies hit safely in each of his first four at-bats. First baseman Wally Joyner and outfielder Jim Eisenreich each had three hits and three RBI. Rookie Kevin Koslofski had three hits, including the first of his major-league career.
Royals starter Hipolito Pichardo worked six innings, giving up two runs (one earned) on eight hits to even his record at 3-3. Former Oriole Mike Boddicker finished with three innings of scoreless relief.
The Orioles lost for the third time in their past four games, but remained one game behind the first-place Toronto Blue Jays, who wilted under another late-inning assault by the suddenly formidable Cleveland Indians in a 7-6 loss.
Mesa was under siege from the start. He handed a one-out walk to Keith Miller in the first inning and fell behind when Jefferies doubled and Joyner delivered a sacrifice fly.
The Royals added three more runs in the fourth on a run-scoring single by Joyner and a two-out, two-run single by Eisenreich, then chased Mesa in the fifth.
Oates bristled at the notion that he might have left Mesa in the game too long.
"It was 2-0 with two out in the fourth," he said. "If I took a starter out in that situation every time, I'd need a 25-man pitching staff."
Mesa said the problem was that he had nothing but a fastball, and "you can't beat anybody with one pitch, no way. It seemed like everything I threw up there, they hit."
Mesa was booed by the sellout of 45,862, but Oates said that a crowd reaction will never influence his decision on when to remove a pitcher.
"I don't care what the fans do," he said. "If I let the fans run the club, we'd be in deep trouble."
It would appear Mesa already is in deep trouble. He has won just five of his past 28 starts, dating to mid-May of last year. He is out of minor-league options, so a decision to move him off the roster likely would result in his departure from the organization. That is one of the reasons the Orioles have hesitated to make a move, but they cannot wait forever for him to become effective.
"I can understand where [the criticism] is coming from," Oates said. "In comparison to Mike Mussina, or Ben McDonald or Rick Sutcliffe, it [Mesa's performance] hasn't been really great. But go around the league and look at teams other than Toronto. How many have a No. 5 starter who is doing a better job than him?"
If that can be construed as a vote of confidence, Oates quickly conceded that it is only good until the club finds someone better to fill the fifth-starter role. No one can say that the Orioles have not been patient with Mesa, who hasn't won a game at home in nearly 11 months.
Oates had more encouraging words for Flanagan, who has allowed 21 of the past 25 batters he faced to reach base. In his past five appearances, he has worked 1 2/3 innings and given up 14 hits and 13 earned runs to raise his ERA to 10.38.
"We just need to get Mike some work somehow," Oates said. "I don't know how we're going to do that, but we've got to get him some work."