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Mesa finds light, McDonald in dark


Somewhere, Al Jackson was smiling. One of the pitchers responsible for his firing came back to haunt the Orioles last night. Another pitched well enough to win, but still is trying to fulfill the potential that was evident when the Orioles changed pitching coaches after the 1991 season.

How is it that Jose Mesa suddenly is throwing strikes while Ben McDonald keeps throwing home-run pitches? Jackson couldn't jTC tell you, and Dick Bosman probably can't, either. Pitching coaches tinker and tinker, but more often than not, they're simply waiting for a light bulb to go on.

It's finally happening for Mesa, who last night took a three-hit shutout into the ninth inning to defeat his former team, 2-0. Maybe soon it will happen for McDonald, who took a five-hitter into the ninth after allowing a two-run homer in the first by Albert Belle.

For the second straight start, McDonald was undone by an early homer and a shutout by the opposing pitcher. Pitching is hardly the problem for a team that has scored only 11 runs in its past seven games. But last night's matchup provided a glimpse of what might have been, and what still could be.

After years of unfulfilled promise with the Orioles, Mesa suddenly is the Indians' best pitcher. Yes, he got off to a similar start in '91, when he had four wins by May 11 and ranked sixth in the American League with a 2.83 ERA. But this time, it appears he's for real.

Is it a change in the pitching coaches, or just the change in scenery? Jackson took the fall when the Orioles' young pitchers failed to develop rapidly. Nearly two years later, Gregg Olson has gone backward, and McDonald and the injured Arthur Rhodes remain at a crossroads.

It wasn't Jackson's fault the first time, and it isn't Bosman's now. Indeed, most in the organization regard Bosman as far superior to his predecessor. He's upbeat, he's knowledgeable, he's hands-on. "He takes it personally when one of us loses," one pitcher says, appreciatively.

Yet, try as he might, Bosman can do only so much. Eventually, the pitchers must be held responsible. Rick Sutcliffe says a player gets to the majors on physical ability -- talent from the neck down. But those who succeed must also incorporate smarts -- talent from the neck up.

A quality pitcher such as Mike Mussina constantly reinvents himself, finding new ways to get hitters out. McDonald did just that last night, throwing his normal fastball, sinking it and cutting it to like a slider. He allowed six hits in 8 1/3 innings, and two of them were infield singles.

"Things are clicking now," McDonald said. "I felt the last start [a 4-0 loss to Boston] was a huge step. With this start, it carried over. It's just confidence. It's just mental at this point. I feel I have it going now."

Mesa, meanwhile, is the latest proof that such turnarounds often take place only when pitchers move to other teams. Dennis Martinez, Pete Harnisch, Curt Schilling -- all benefited from new environments, if not new approaches. Heck, Schilling was traded three times before he finally became a top pitcher.

Mesa, who turns 27 on Saturday, was in the same type of rut with the Orioles that McDonald is now. McDonald has won only eight of his past 32 starts. Mesa had won only four of his previous 27 before the Orioles traded him for minor-league outfielder Kyle Washington last July.

Now, less than a year later, Mesa has been totally reworked by Indians pitching coach Rick Adair and bullpen coach Dom Chiti, the former pitching coach at Triple-A Rochester. It might not be saying much, but Mesa (4-2, 2.75) is the only Indians starter with an ERA below 4.00.

He brings his hands over his head now instead of to his chest -- the same adjustment Harnisch made after joining Houston. His hand movement in the stretch is different. And he's no longer throwing his curveball the same way -- Adair said he tipped his old one by arching his back.

Mesa's breaking pitch these days more closely resembles a slider. He's also throwing a split-fingered changeup, but of all the changes, the biggest is that he's pitching every fifth day. The Orioles used him irregularly last season as their fifth starter.

He's in a different mind-set now, a different world. "When I was with the Orioles, if I'd give up a walk, I'd be looking into the dugout to see if they were going to take me out," Mesa said. "Now they don't do that. Even if I get three men on base, they just let me pitch."

He struck out seven and walked one last night, and has now issued only 11 walks in 55 2/3 innings. Once, Jose Mesa was a pitcher who got pitching coaches fired. The Orioles can only hope Ben McDonald turns out the same way -- and in their uniform, not some other team's.

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