It was just what the Orioles didn't need -- an ex-teammate coming back to deliver an I-told-you-so performance.
Cleveland Indians right-hander Jose Mesa, who was too erratic to hold onto his place in the Orioles' rotation last year, held the anemic Orioles offense to just three singles over eight innings on the way to a 2-0 victory last night at Camden Yards.
Mesa was overpowering, striking out seven and giving up just one hit after the first inning to overmatch a solid 8 1/3 -inning performance by Orioles right-hander Ben McDonald. But just how overpowering he was became a matter of opinion following the third straight shutout suffered by the Orioles at home.
"I don't know if he was throwing that well or not," manager Johnny Oates said. "He threw strikes, but I'm not sure where all the credit goes. It has been that way for the past week. We've scored two runs in the last four games here, and we were lucky we scored them in the same game and the other team scored one that night."
The three straight shutouts at home provided another dubious distinction in what has become a very discouraging season. The only other time the Orioles have been shut out three straight times in Baltimore was in July 1957. And this streak could easily be four -- the Orioles were shut out for six innings last Monday against Boston before winning the game with single runs in the seventh and eighth innings.
This game came down to one big swing of the bat, a two-run home run by Indians outfielder Albert Belle in the first inning that stood up all night. The loss was the fourth in five games for the Orioles, who fell eight games below .500 (14-22) and slipped back into the AL East cellar.
Their only significant threat came after Mesa gave up a leadoff walk in the ninth and gave way to the Indians' bullpen. Harold Reynolds brought the potential go-ahead run to the plate with a one-out single off left-hander Derek Lilliquist, but Lilliquist got Mark McLemore on a routine fly and right-hander Eric Plunk came on to retire Cal Ripken on a soft bouncer to second to end it.
McDonald (2-5) gave up six hits in one of his strongest performances of the season, but he came up on the wrong end of a shutout for the second start in a row.
"Ben threw the ball exceptionally well," Oates said. "He had an outstanding fastball. He just had plain good stuff."
Even the pitch that lost the game was not a glaring mistake. It was a knee-high curve that Belle muscled into the Orioles' bullpen for his major-league-leading 13th home run.
"I haven't seen it on replay," McDonald said, "but a couple of the guys said it was a pretty good pitch. He was fooled. He was way out in front on it, but he's one of those guys who is strong enough to keep his hands back even though his body is out in front."
The Orioles' hitting problems notwithstanding, Mesa deserves a lot of credit, too, even though the strength of his performance wasn't enough to convince manager Mike Hargrove to stick with him after the leadoff walk in the ninth. Mesa had only given up one single over the previous eight innings, but Hargrove wanted a left-hander to pitch to Brady Anderson.
The decision wasn't an easy one, but Mesa has been vulnerable to the home run this year and Anderson was the only one of the next three batters to rate as a serious home run threat. The results certainly justified Hargrove's decision, but it was a tough one even in retrospect.
"On one hand, you've got your heart telling you to let him finish what he started," Hargrove said. "But your head tells you that you have to win the game. . . . and our best bet the way their lineup was set was with Plunk and Lilliquist."
The fact that McDonald fell victim to an early-inning home run should not come as a tremendous surprise.
He gave up two homers in an April 30 start against Kansas City and then allowed four in four innings to Toronto on May 6. He gave up just one homer in last week's start against Boston, but the bases-empty shot by Ivan Calderon was the seventh he had allowed in a span of just 29 batters.
Progress is progress. The club was looking for a little more last night, and there was plenty of it despite the first-inning homer that put the Orioles in their familiar catch-up position.
"I think that the last two starts were progress," McDonald said. "I'm pleased about that. If I give up two runs in eight-plus innings, I'll take that every day. We haven't scored a lot of runs, but that is going to turn around. You can't control that."
McDonald recovered from the homer to hold the Indians scoreless on four hits over the next seven innings before turning the game over to the bullpen with two runners aboard in the ninth. It might have been enough if Mesa had not suddenly turned into the pitcher the Orioles had spent so many years trying to develop.
Orioles front-office officials were afraid of that when they finally made the decision to trade Mesa to the Indians last July for a minor-league outfielder.
Now, he is the most dependable pitcher in the Indians' rotation, with four victories in his past five decisions. His 4-2 record is especially impressive on a team that is eight games under .500, and his 2.75 ERA leaves him just one more good start off the league leader sheet.
Last night, Mesa gave up a pair of two-out singles in the first inning, then held the Orioles to just one hit over the next seven. He gave way to Lilliquist after walking pinch hitter Mark Leonard to open the ninth.
That brought the tying run to the plate for the Orioles, thanks to a big defensive play in the top of the inning. Right fielder McLemore threw out Carlos Baerga at the plate to complete a double play.
McLemore apparently is getting comfortable in the outfield. Earlier, he made a spectacular diving catch to rob Wayne Kirby of a hit and almost doubled up Kenny Lofton with a throw from his knees.