MINNEAPOLIS -- Right-hander Bob Milacki got a reprieve yesterday. He will remain in the Orioles starting rotation and teammate Jose Mesa will move into the bullpen to work in long relief.
Milacki, who had every reason to believe that he had lost his place in the rotation when Oates moved Storm Davis into today's starting assignment against the Minnesota Twins, will fill the spot start Tuesday night against the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards.
"I'm pretty happy about it," Milacki said, "but I'm going to have to pitch well to stay in the rotation. If I don't pitch well on Tuesday, I might not be in there on Sunday."
Oates did not put it in quite those words. He said Milacki is in the rotation, period, but it goes without saying he will make a change if he feels it will help keep his team in contention in the American League East.
It also goes without saying that Milacki will have to improve on the erratic performance that threatened his place in the rotation. He has won just once in his past seven starts and he has given up 27 earned runs in 35 2/3 innings over that span to raise his ERA to 5.65.
Mesa has struggled for more than a year, winning just five of 28 starts dating back to last May. Arm strength apparently is not a problem, so Oates has decided to throw out the assumption that Mesa cannot adapt to a bullpen role. The Orioles have dismissed that concept on several previous occasions because of concern that Mesa's fragile elbow might not hold up to the irregular work required from a relief pitcher.
"I guess we're going to find out," Oates said. "He's excited about going to the bullpen. He thinks he might be able to help us more there. He's unhappy he hasn't been able to contribute more as a starting pitcher."
Mesa doesn't have much choice but to be excited about it. The alternative figured to be the waiver list and a trip back to the minors or on to another organization. The club has nothing to lose, since Mesa is out of options and might be lost to another club if the Orioles try to send him down.
The pitching reorganization has been accomplished without altering the makeup of the 10-man pitching staff. Davis has moved into the No. 4 spot in the rotation, pushing Milacki back into the spot starter role. Alan Mills will move into Davis' role in the bullpen and Mesa will move into the long relief role.
In a sense, Oates' decision is self-fulfilled prophecy. He told the organization in 1988 that he thought Mesa's future would be in the bullpen, but any thought of switching him to the bullpen was abandoned when he underwent two elbow operations in 1988 and '89.
Oates considers the move open-ended. Mesa conceivably could work his way back into the rotation, or work his way out of the organization.
"We'll just see how it goes," Oates said. "It wouldn't make sense for me to say he'll be there the whole year. He might have five or six bad outings or he might build up his confidence out there and I might want to start him again."
Milacki and Mesa have struggled so badly that there was speculation the club would reach down into the minor leagues for help, but the inconsistent performance of reliever Jim Poole and Triple-A starter Richie Lewis persuaded Oates to stay with the 10 pitchers at the major-league level.
"It seems like every time we talk about somebody else in the rotation, something happens down there," Oates said. "Richie Lewis gave up six or seven runs the other night. Poole gave up three runs the last time out. I've always said that I won't make a change until we find somebody better. Right now, I have the most confidence sending Bobby out there."
The ripple effect of the reorganization constitutes a big promotion for Mills, who has been a pleasant surprise in the long-relief role. He entered last night's game with a 5-1 record and a 1.45 ERA, more than good enough to earn an enhanced role, but he was hesitant to talk about it.
"I really don't want to say anything," he said. "I'm just happy to be here. I'm not unhappy about it [the change] by any means, but whatever they ask me to do, I'm going to go out there and do the best I can."