SEATTLE -- Jose Mesa had to be perfect in spring training to win a spot on the Orioles' pitching staff.
Now the time is rapidly approaching when the righthander may have to duplicate that effort to keep his job.
After a decent start, when he pitched well enough to win his first three starts, Mesa (1-5) has lost four in a row after last night's 7-3 setback to the Seattle Mariners. And with the Orioles (26-17) still clinging to first place in the American League's Eastern Division, every loss Mesa suffers is magnified.
"I feel sorry for him," said veteran pitcher Mike Flanagan, who knows what it's like to both struggle and succeed -- and that the difference between the two is sometimes minuscule. "It seems like there's never an easy inning, or at-bat for him.
"There always seems to be a bloop [hit] somewhere. The poor guy hasn't had a chance to get his feet on the ground."
Indeed, until last night Mesa had not allowed more than three earned runs in any of his previous six starts. And in both of his trouble innings against the Mariners, the second and fifth, a couple of "seeing-eye" hits played prominent roles.
Dave Cochrane's flare to center set up a second run following Pete O'Brien's homer in the second, and Greg Briley's looper to the same sector set up the three-run downfall in the fifth. There are times when Mesa appears unhittable, others when disaster is only one pitch away.
The flip side of the coin for the unfortunate righthander is that he has been prone to throw the pitch that leads to disaster. Last night it came in the form of a slow, sloppy curveball that O'Brien drilled on one hop off the rightfield wall.
The hit drove in the two runs that broke a 2-2 tie -- and sent Mesa to the showers. On a night when the Orioles squandered countless opportunities against lefthander Dave Fleming (they stranded eight runners from the fourth through the seventh innings), Mesa had little margin for error -- and easily exceeded it.
Manager John Oates has been saying all along "you don't give up on an arm like that" when talking about Mesa, but his confidence in that assessment might be wavering. Even though Mesa has yet to make successive starts in what could be described as a regular rotation, he may be running out of opportunities.
He is scheduled to start next a week from tonight, against the Angels. If so, it would mark the fourth time Mesa has pitched with more than a week between starts.
Even working on a more reasonable five days of rest last night, it was as a late replacement for scheduled starter Mike Mussina, who was shelved at least until Friday with a stomach virus.
The situation has hardly been ideal, but Mesa has been unable to force Oates to use him on a more regular basis.
When he was asked if he might consider replacing Mesa in the "rotation," Oates said only that it wouldn't happen with the present makeup of the staff. "We're always trying to make the club better," he said. "If that's an area in which we can get better, then we will."
That, however, would not involve Mesa and Storm Davis, who has worked exclusively out of the bullpen, switching roles. "I don't think that's feasible," said Oates. "We would just be moving people around. We don't have any moves on the docket now."
At the very least, it would appear he doesn't make a turnaround, Mesa's job could be in jeopardy when lefthanded reliever Jim Poole is ready to come off the disabled list.
The lefthanded reliever worked two scoreless innings for the Double-A Hagerstown Suns last night in his first action this season, allowing two hits and no runs.
Oates said such a move is far from imminent, but beyond that wouldn't speculate.
"He [Poole] will pitch at least three more times [for Hagerstown]," said Oates. "We're at least 10 days away from that. We'll just have to wait and see. There's no guarantee he [Poole] will be here by then. He has to be healthy and ready [to pitch at the big-league level]."
When that time comes, Oates will be faced with a very difficult decision. Alan Mills (2-0, 0.77 ERA) has been spectacular since Mark Williamson went on the disabled list early in the season, and it is highly improbable he would be sent back to Rochester.
Mesa is out of options, which means he would have to clear waivers before he could be sent to the minors. His current record notwithstanding, that would be a long-shot possibility at best, which means the Orioles would have to risk losing him.
When spring training started, Mesa was conceded little, if any, chance of making the team. He responded to that pressure by not allowing a run and forcing the Orioles to make room for him on the staff.
Now it's two months later, the Orioles are doing better than even the biggest optimist could have imagined -- and Mesa is again under the gun. He hasn't pitched regularly enough for the Orioles to make a thorough evaluation -- but he hasn't pitched good enough to overcome the stigma of his last 23 starts in the major leagues.
During that period he is a miserable 3-13, and that record is starting to take precedence over his new beginning in spring training.
"He hasn't pitched two shutouts like [Rick] Sutcliffe has," said Oates, "but he hasn't twice given up six earned runs in 2 2/3 innings [as Sutcliffe has] either.
"So he's somewhere in the middle of the road," said Oates.
If Poole's rehabilitation continues on schedule and he's deemed fit to rejoin the Orioles when they return home a week from Friday, Mesa's future could be determined by his start against the Angels next week.
That might be when the Orioles will be forced to ask a very difficult question about Jose Mesa. Something like "what have you done for us lately?"
When and if that time comes, the Orioles can only hope that Mesa is the only starting pitcher about whom they have to ask that question.