Orioles do summer swoon, but Mesa springs to life

JOHN EISENBERG

July 27, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

To understand that the Orioles' season is a sweet piece turning sour in the summer heat, you did not need to see Mike Mussina scrapping along without a workable fastball and getting hit hard for the second time in a week yesterday at Camden Yards.

You did not need to see Joe Orsulak dropping a routine fly or Brady Anderson getting picked off first base or the Orioles pushing their major-league-leading total of runners left on base up to 755.

You did not need to see the club falling behind early again and making it three losses in four games to the Rangers, a team the Orioles usually cannot help beating, even when they are not beating anyone else. (The last time the Rangers won three games in a series here, Reggie Jackson was an Oriole.)

You did not need to see on the right-field scoreboard that the Brewers were clobbering the White Sox again, meaning that they could push the Orioles into third place when the teams resume play tomorrow night.

You did not need to see any of that rather convincing body of evidence. You did not even need to see the Rangers' Juan Gonzalez hit a 450-foot home run, the longest in the new park.

No, to understand that the undercurrent of this season has gone from hot to rotten here in Bawlmer, all you needed to see was the Cleveland-Kansas City score out there on the board.

With Kansas City scoring one run. And Jose Mesa pitching the first eight innings for the Indians. Are we talking bad karma, or what?

Mesa, who was utterly incapable of throwing two strikes in a row as an Oriole, has done nothing but throw mean, gut-busting, Sandy Alomar Jr.-blasting, 95 mph strikes since becoming an Indian 13 days ago. Are we talking terrible omens, or what?

Please understand. In a division-winning season, you are the one who finds the surprise starter, not the one who gives one away to the Indians. In a division-winning season, your 95 mph man finds a cure. But not for another team. That is not in the script.

"All I can say," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said after the Rangers' 6-2 win yesterday, "is that Mesa would still be here if he had pitched like that here."

Needless to say. Here sit the flagging Orioles, desperate for big-shouldered starts, reworking the bottom of their rotation and gambling and losing on using Mussina and Rick Sutcliffe with three days' rest. Oates is like the old vaudevillians who tried to keep two dozen plates spinning at the same time. He is scrambling.

Meanwhile, Mesa, not even two weeks gone, is suddenly a monster every five days. Talking to his arm, like he always did, the two of them getting along great now. Are we talking extremely uncool vibes, or what?

These numbers are no less than astounding. You had better sit down. If you remember Mesa as the interminably slow, constantly erratic pitcher that he was here, you are in for a serious shock.

He has made three starts for the Indians. His ERA is 1.74. He has allowed 23 runners in 20 innings, with only five walks. Yesterday, he pitched the first eight innings of a game the Indians eventually won, 2-1, in 13 innings, allowing one run, eight hits and -- get this -- walking none. Are we talking "it must be a prank" material, or what?

Now, do not construe this as a criticism of the trade that sent Mesa away for a Double-A outfielder. The Orioles had given him enough chances. Teams should always be wary of giving up on such strong arms, but the Orioles had been patient long enough.

Let's face it, Mesa pitched terribly here. Roland Hemond has bombed some trades in his day, but do not blame him this time. A team can have only so much patience in a pennant race, and seeing as Mesa was out of minor-league options, a trade was a reasonable solution.

You are probably griping about the deal now, but were you griping the day it was made? Didn't think so.

No, the Orioles are just getting burned by one of those baseball curiosities: a player for whom a trade means a kick start. Not that it can be explained.

"I think a change of scenery can make a big difference in a situation like that," Orioles reliever Todd Frohwirth said yesterday. "If you have ability and you've been failing somewhere for three or four years, any place looks better. It isn't dTC anyone's fault that Mesa failed here. He just wasn't getting it done. Who can say why he suddenly turned around?"

And who knows whether the turnaround will continue beyond his next start? But that is not the point. The point is that it is a piece of terrible baseball luck, giving up a suddenly sound starter when busily trolling for same. You see that happen and you can not help wondering whether this is meant to be the Orioles' season, after all.

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