OAKLAND, Calif. - A year ago, Jose Mercedes earned de facto status as the Orioles' staff ace over a pitcher who later signed an $88.5 million contract and another whom the Orioles classified as untouchable. Now, two months removed from free agency, his goal is to maintain his confidence while trying to sidestep becoming the major leagues' first 20-game loser in two decades.
"I think I'm doing the same thing. I don't think I'm having the same luck," said Mercedes, 7-16 after taking Saturday's 6-4 loss against the Seattle Mariners. "We've got to live with that."
Prone to big innings that tend to explode with two outs, Mercedes disputes suggestions that he has become too fine with runners on base, a tendency some club observers believe leads to incidents such as Saturday, when he blew a 4-1 lead with an eventful four-run sixth inning.
"I don't care how they evaluate me," he said. "All I can do is pitch the way that is best for me. When I get the ball, only I know what I should do."
Instead of winning three more games and losing eight fewer than Mike Mussina as he did last year, Mercedes would like to allow Brian Kingman of the 1981 Athletics to keep his distinction as the last man to lose 20 games in a season.
Mercedes' 16 losses are the most by an Orioles pitcher since Mike Boddicker's 17 in 1985. Unless Hargrove tinkers with his rotation - something other managers have done to rescue pitchers from a potential 20-loss season - Mercedes is due five more starts. Another loss would tie him with Boddicker, Dave McNally (1972, 1973), Chuck Estrada (1962) and Joe Coleman (1954) for the fourth-most losses in franchise history.
Two more losses would tie him with Jim Wilson (1955) and Pat Dobson (1972) for second most. Don Larsen retains the club record with 21 losses in 1954, the Orioles' first season in Baltimore. All of Mercedes' competition worked from a four-man rotation.
Manager Mike Hargrove indicated yesterday that Mercedes will remain in the rotation "especially if he pitches like he did last time out" despite the recent arrival of several minor-league arms.
"It may happen, but there are no plans to do so now," he said of Mercedes skipping any turns.
Mercedes, 30, is a pending free agent who has four weeks to rehabilitate his value. In the afterglow of last season's 14-7 breakout that also put him ahead of "untouchable" Sidney Ponson, Mercedes rejected the Orioles' offer of a three-year, $8 million extension in spring training and ultimately lost his arbitration case as well.
"Nobody will forget what I did [in 2000]," he said. "Everybody sees what's going on here. A little bit of luck makes a big difference."
Mercedes' definition of "luck" includes spotty defense and inconsistent run support he believes have influenced his 5.90 ERA and uninspiring record.
Saturday's goblins featured Bret Boone's two-out ricochet off Mercedes' left leg to begin the telling rally and Stan Javier's slicing fly ball that eluded left fielder Brady Anderson for an RBI double.
"The fly ball to left field looked to me like just a fly ball. All of a sudden, the ball goes away, away and it's a double to score a run," he recalled. "I guess it wasn't my day. It's not my year."
Can Maduro take five?
Calvin Maduro has earned three of the Orioles' past nine wins, hardly inconsequential for a pitcher who previously endured more than four seasons between major-league victories.
Which raises the question: If Chuck McElroy could persuade the club to project him as its fifth starter with just two starts last September, might Maduro (3-4, 3.78) make a strong case for a berth in next season's starting rotation with another solid month?
"He absolutely can put himself in a situation to be there," vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift said. "Calvin has been very impressive. He's aggressive and throws strikes with command."
East Bay salutes Ripken
The A's have planned a three-day celebration for Cal Ripken's final tour here.
Last night the A's distributed replicas of Ripken's rookie card as well as installing commemorative bases and on-deck circles. Tonight, a replica card honoring Ripken's consecutive-games streak will be distributed. Tomorrow the A's and the city of Oakland will stage Cal Ripken Jr. Day in which the A's will dedicate an inner-city baseball field in Ripken's name.
Proclamations will be read before the game, and Ripken will be presented a special vertical from Silver Oak Winery in Napa, Calif.
No trip for Kinkade
Outfielder Mike Kinkade did not accompany the team to Oakland, remaining in Baltimore to have his painful left wrist examined. Kinkade attempted to take batting practice Sunday but experienced persistent soreness. He was placed on the DL Aug. 24 with a shoulder contusion and would be due to be activated next Sunday.