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These days, Mesa's arm has all the right answers


CLEVELAND -- A few things about Jose Mesa remain unchanged from his days as the lost soul of the Orioles' pitching staff.

He still pads around the clubhouse in shower thongs on which he has written the inspired nickname Mike Boddicker gave him eight years ago -- Joe Table, the English translation of his Hispanic name.

"A little piece of Baltimore still with me," Mesa said yesterday in the Cleveland Indians' clubhouse. "But hey, it's my name, right?"

He also still converses with his pitching arm, a trait to which he confessed a few years ago on a slow, rainy day in the Orioles' spring training camp.

"My arm tells me things are going pretty good," Mesa said yesterday. "But I'm not talking back to him these days. I think God is talking to him for me these days."

Few would argue that divinity in some form has touched Mesa this year. A disappointment as a member of the Orioles' rotation, an obscure starter/middle reliever with the Indians since 1992, he has emerged this year as a close-to-unhittable closer on baseball's best team.

He has recorded 15 saves in 15 opportunities, including one in each of his past dozen appearances. He has a 2.42 ERA and has yet to allow an inherited base runner to score. The Indians have won all 20 games in which he has pitched.

"Every day you pinch yourself," Indians manager Mike Hargrove said yesterday.

Mesa, 29, is still the same pitcher he was with the Orioles in that he throws stunningly hard; his last pitch to Matt Nokes on Monday night registered 97 mph. But his power is the only similarity between the old Mesa and today's edition.

He was just a thrower with the Orioles, and a wild one at that, unable to throw strikes consistently. (He had 89 walks and 86 strikeouts in 1991 and 1992.) Today, he uses a nasty slider (taught to him by Phil Regan) and a two-seam fastball as well as his trusty four-seam fastball. And he throws strikes: He has walked only five batters in 22 innings.

"Has he improved?" someone asked Hargrove yesterday.

The Indians' manager just smiled, then answered the question with one of his own: "Have you been watching him the last few years?"

In other words, he has improved, oh, maybe 300 percent.

"All these years I always saw myself as a starter," Mesa said, "never as a reliever, much less the closer. But this is a funny game. You never know what's going to happen to you. And this closing is working out."

Mesa made 47 starts with the Orioles and 48 with the Indians through 1993. Regan, who was the Indians' pitching coach last season, came up with the idea of moving Mesa to the bullpen, and Mesa responded with seven wins, 51 appearances and a career-low 3.82 ERA in 1994.

"Phil deserves a lot of credit," Mesa said. "He taught me to throw the slider, and how to be a reliever."

Mesa converted two save chances for the Indians just before the strike ended last season, then went home to the Dominican Republic and handled the closing for a winter ball team.

When the Indians found themselves without a closer to top off their fine team this spring -- they talked to the Twins about Rick Aguilera -- Hargrove gave the job to Mesa on a look-see basis.

"We needed someone, and Jose definitely has the best stuff of anyone in our bullpen," Hargrove said.

Two months later, Aguilera's name isn't being thrown around anymore.

"Having Jose do this fills a huge hole for us," Hargrove said. "If you don't have a guy who comes in at the end and closes games like that, it puts you two steps backward. Last year I think we only converted something like nine of our first 18 save chances."

As you might guess about a player who confesses to conversing with his arm, Mesa is not exactly taking the cerebral approach to his new job and success.

"I haven't talked to any [other closers for advice] or anything," he said. "I know it's a hard job, and I know it'll get tougher for me; I haven't even blown a save yet. But whatever happens, I'm ready for it."

He had better be -- a closer's ability to handle failure is an essential part of the job.

Regan said he thinks his former pupil will handle the task.

"It never seemed like the pressure [of pitching with the game on the line] ever bothered Mesa," the Orioles manager said. "It was just a question of him getting the experience. He always had the talent."

Of course, as Regan knows -- and as the examples of Arthur Rhodes and Brad Pennington prove -- having the talent and using it properly are different matters altogether.

For the longest time, it appeared Mesa never would use his. No longer.

"I'm just taking the ball and going out there," he said. "Things are going good. And I'm not going to ask any questions."

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