Those who must find a scapegoat for the Orioles' shocking three-game losing streak no doubt will point to Jose Mesa, but let's end that silliness before it starts.
We know Mesa lasted only 3 2/3 innings in last night's 5-3 loss to Oakland. We know he has worked a total of 13 innings in his last three starts. We know he's now 1-4 with a 4.45 ERA.
The numbers are rather damning, but this is no time to drop Mesa from the starting rotation. For one thing, he's adjusting to an irregular schedule. For another, he's receiving poor run support.
The Orioles have scored 20 runs in Mesa's six starts, and 10 of those came in his only victory. Contrast that with Ben McDonald, who has a 5-1 record backed by eight runs per start.
Mesa can't be completely exonerated, but he's the pitching equivalent of the pre-sideburns Brady Anderson -- someone with enough ability to succeed, if only that ability can be drawn out.
As such, he represents pitching coach Dick Bosman's greatest challenge. Two days short of his 26th birthday, Mesa might have the nastiest stuff on the entire staff. The trick now is teaching him how to win.
Obviously, it's easier said than done. Mesa would benefit from working every fifth day, but because he's the No. 5 starter, manager Johnny Oates is using him only when the need arises.
Last night marked the fourth time in six starts Mesa has pitched on at least seven days rest, but he needs to adjust to the lighter workload. Oates said it won't be increasing anytime soon.
Mesa and Bob Milacki will continue pitching once a week until mid-June. The Orioles are off the next three Thursdays, and Oates doesn't want to disrupt his top three starters.
It makes sense, for McDonald, Rick Sutcliffe and Mike Mussina are a combined 15-4. But it means Mesa and Milacki must retain their edge by working diligently between starts.
"They've just got to do it," Oates said. "The way the other guys are going, there's no other choice. I'm not going to sacrifice the rotation. Everyone can't pitch on six days rest."
Under the circumstances, Oates said he's "very pleased" with Mesa. Besides, he can't possibly quit on a pitcher capable of blowing his fastball by Mark McGwire the way Mesa did in the first inning last night.
Still, Mesa has won only three of his last 22 starts after resembling a Cy Young candidate the first six weeks of 1991.
"I know sooner or later it's going to come together," he said.
The question, of course, is when.
Mesa said he had his best stuff last night, but he was undone by four walks and three straight cheap singles by Oakland's 7-8-9 batters with two outs in the fourth.
Oates gave him one more hitter, but Mesa walked Rickey Henderson, and that was that. Mesa allowed nine baserunners in 3 2/3 innings. The Orioles never recovered from their 3-0 hole.
Afterward, Bosman seemed frustrated. Mesa can break a pitching coach's heart the way Anderson once broke Tom McCraw's. Just ask Al Jackson, who cited Mesa's '91 decline as his biggest regret.
Now Bosman undergoes the Mesa test. He helped the second-year righthander adjust the grip on his slider, but still isn't satisfied with Mesa's control of his breaking pitches.
"He's improving," Bosman said. "He's worked hard, he really has. His workload is not a consistent workload. That's always a factor. But he's still walking too many guys."
Actually, Mesa walked only four in his first 24 1/3 innings, but he has matched that total in each of his past two starts, the first of which came on the normal four days rest.
All this follows a magnificent spring, so Mesa again is drawing the same quizzical looks inside the Orioles clubhouse. Fair enough, but Mesa doesn't need to be a scapegoat. What he needs is time.