BOSTON -- Whatever problems Jose Mesa had last night, they were more typical than physical. His record (5-11) is more indicative of the way he pitched than his arm, which alternately delivers 90-mph boomers and extra-base rockets.
The big righthander ranks right alongside Ben McDonald as one of the major mysteries of the Orioles' pitching staff. McDonald is down for the third time this year, and the fourth in his brief career, because of an injury.
Mesa has two operations on his resume and has also done a turn on the disabled list this year (17 days), leading to speculation that he might not be completely healthy. But if he isn't, he's doing a good job of covering up the fact -- with his words and his arm.
"I felt fine," Mesa said last night after losing for the eighth time in his last nine decisions and the third straight time since being activated from the disabled list.
"It [his elbow] bothered me a little bit when I warmed up, but not during the game. I felt like I threw the ball good," said Mesa.
Boston's 4-3 victory over Mesa and the Orioles moved the Red Sox within 2 1/2 games of the American League East-leading Toronto Blue Jays, who fell for the second straight night to Seattle in 11 innings, 5-4. It is the closest Boston has been to Toronto since June 28.
The fact that Mesa says his arm is fine comes as no surprise to Orioles manager John Oates.
"That's exactly what he's told us all along," said Oates. "He's gotten normal treatment for a little soreness in the elbow, but other than that he's OK.
"I don't know how you can throw the ball 94 mph if your arm hurts."
Except for one horrendous pitch, a hanging breaking ball that Wade Boggs drilled for a two-run double in the second inning, Mesa threw the ball with authority all night. He needed 50 pitches to get through the first two innings, but had used only 36 more when he left after walking the leadoff hitter in the seventh. His fastball stayed in the 90- to 94-mph range throughout.
It was a wrong-field home run by Jack Clark, a fly ball that drifted into the rightfield seats barely beyond the foul pole 302 feet from home plate, that ultimately beat Mesa (5-11).
But it was the pitch to Boggs that typified everything that has been happening to Mesa in the last year. With runners on second and third and two outs, Boggs drilled a soft curve into the leftfield corner to drive in the two runs.
That pitch enabled the Red Sox to get back into the game, after monstrous home runs by Glenn Davis (eight) and Leo Gomez (14) had given the Orioles an early 3-0 lead. Mesa had just thrown two overpowering inside fastballs, one for a second strike, another that just missed before Boggs reached out and spanked a 2-and-2 pitch into the leftfield corner.
"I have no problem with the pitch selection," said Oates, "just with the location. You want to throw him that pitch, but low and inside. It was up and away. That would be a bad pitch to me.
"I don't know anybody who doesn't try to throw Boggs slow stuff down and in. You try to get him to pull the ball. If you pitch him away he's going to pepper that wall."
The problem, and this may be one of those recurring situations, is that Mesa unwittingly was going against the book. "We were trying to pitch him down and away," said the righthander. "It was up a little and he hit it."
Given that piece of information, Oates was more than a little surprised. "They are told constantly that you don't throw Boggs breaking balls away," he said.
"You can throw him hard stuff low and away, but not breaking balls. That's the worst pitch you can throw him -- the ball is breaking in to the fat part of the bat, which is right where he wants it."
It was just another reason why Mesa left without a win for the 16th time in his 21 starts this year. It's a statistic that both puzzles and bothers Oates.
"He's not getting the results he was at the end of last year and his first five or six starts this year," said Oates. "He looked more like a pitcher than a thrower then. When he came up last year, I said 'this is not the same pitcher I remember seeing [as Rochester's manager in 1988].'
"He was a thrower then, and he looks more like a thrower now. Somewhere along the line something has happened. I don't know what it is. If it's mechanical or fundamental we have to find a way to correct it."
For Mesa, games like the one last night all seem to be running together. There always seems to be a bad pitch or a bad inning to mar an otherwise good performance.
The record tells the story, not the arm.