Early matchup with Vaughn made Mesa's and Indians' season

INSIDE PITCH

September 10, 1995|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

As amazing as this year has been for the Cleveland Indians, it could be said that the turning point came when the decision was made to play the 1995 season.

When a team is 50 games over .500 with three weeks to play, there obviously haven't been any critical periods. However, manager Mike Hargrove and pitching coach Mark Wiley can point to one game that boosted the Indians to their current level.

The date was May 20 and the Indians staged a late rally that would become their trademark, scoring four runs in the eighth inning to take a 7-5 lead over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Jose Mesa came in to pitch the ninth and was facing a two-out, one-on situation with Mo Vaughn coming to bat.

Hargrove had left-hander Paul Assenmacher throwing in the bullpen and was prepared to make the routine switch against the left-handed-hitting Vaughn. But then he looked at Wiley and both had the same thought.

"We were still looking for a closer," Wiley said. "I remember saying, 'If it's going to be him [Mesa], he's going to have to pitch in these situations.'

"Mike decided not to make the move and Jose blew Vaughn away with three pitches. He [Vaughn] never had a chance."

But the Indians had their closer.

That was almost a month into the season, but only the fourth save for Mesa. He got another one the next day -- and has faltered only once since.

In the past two days against the Orioles, his former team, Mesa charted his 40th and 41st saves. They had about as much of a chance as Vaughn did that day in Boston.

"I think that game was the key for him," said Wiley. "That was the day we stopped looking for a closer. His role was defined."

The Indians have lost only one of the 55 games in which Mesa has appeared. To draw a comparison, the hard-throwing right-hander has participated in only three fewer victories than the Orioles, as a team, have recorded all season.

The coincidence of all this is that Mesa was the primary reason why former Orioles teammate Gregg Olson signed a minor-league contract with the Indians, rather than the Orioles. He's also the reason Olson is now with the Kansas City Royals.

"When I signed, neither the Orioles nor the Indians had a closer, and the offers were the same," Olson said. "But I knew the Orioles would go out and get one of those who was available. And I knew the Indians were maxed out salary-wise and weren't going after any other established guys.

"Jose was their best candidate, but he didn't have a track record, so it was an easy decision to make."

Once he earned a promotion to Cleveland (after the Red Sox expressed interest before acquiring Rick Aguilera), Olson had another easy decision. Mesa had locked the bullpen door on the closer's job.

"There wasn't a role for me there," he said, shortly before asking for and getting his release to pursue other opportunities.

Because of the Indians phenomenal record, it will be hard for anybody from Cleveland to win the Most Valuable Player Award. No single player could have that much effect on a team playing at a .702 pace.

But there's no doubting the impact Mesa has made. And it can be traced to that confrontation with Mo Vaughn on May 20.

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