Mesa having one Eck of a year

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jose Mesa and Dennis Eckersley.

Bet you never thought you'd see those names in the same sentence when the Orioles traded Mesa for Kyle Washington three years ago.

But now here's Mesa, needing just two more saves to tie Eckersley's record of 36 consecutive saves in a season.

He's not just a Cy Young candidate, he's an MVP candidate. No other team has more saves.

Mesa earned No. 34 with a perfect ninth inning last night in Cleveland's 9-6 victory over the Orioles.

He could tie Eckersley before he leaves town.

"He comes in there knowing you can't hit his fastball," said Jim Poole, the other former Orioles reliever with Cleveland. "It's a riot."

Earlier this month, Mesa struck out Kirby Puckett on four pitches -- fastballs that registered 95, 97, 98 mph on the fast gun, and a 91-mph slider.

"It was the hardest slider I've ever seen -- period," said an American League scout who attended the game.

Puckett has one of the quickest bats in baseball.

Yet, he had no chance.

"Terrific power," Indians pitching coach Mark Wiley said.

"I thought I was terrific," Puckett said, "until I struck out."

Indeed, Mesa is going so good, there are times when catcher Tony Pena won't even give him a sign.

"Tony gets down in a wide stance. He flips his glove out there. And everyone in the ballpark knows what's coming," Poole said.

"If we're winning by three runs, he don't need to give a sign," Mesa said, laughing.

To think, Mesa was a flop as a starter until the Indians made him a middle-inning reliever last season.

To think, he entered the season with two career saves.

That's the thing Eckersley can't believe -- Mesa hasn't failed yet. He's 34-for-34 this season, his first as a full-time closer. Eckersley set his record in 1992, his fifth season as a closer, and 18th in the majors.

"When I did that, I'd already given up the bomb to Kirk [Gibson] four years before," Eckersley said yesterday from Kansas City. "I'd had a lot of failure, tons of it.

"What he's doing this year is going to be awesome. Whether you can sustain it, that's the question. Whether you can sustain it coming back from failure -- a great big loss.

RTC "When he's pitching now, you lose a game, you blow a save, who cares? You're up by 20 games.

"The pressure of closing a playoff game -- that's crunch time. Or, if you're in a pennant race. And for me, there's more pressure closing a game when you haven't won in two weeks."

Eckersley, of course, has pitched in every one of those situations for the Oakland Athletics -- most recently, the latter.

He finished the '92 season with a career-high 51 saves in 54 opportunities, and won the American League Cy Young and MVP awards.

Still, what do most fans remember?

The home run he allowed to Roberto Alomar in the playoffs.

Mesa, 29, has yet to endure such a bitter disappointment, but he will -- it's the nature of his job.

"I don't see that bothering Jose," Wiley said. "He's so consistent in his work habits, the way he approaches it. I don't see him backing off a bit."

Wiley said Mesa is so diligent with his training regimen, he's an example to younger Indians like pitcher Julian Tavarez and outfielder Manny Ramirez.

But Mesa still has that quick smile, that happy-go-lucky air, that jovial sense of humor.

This is a guy who talks to his pitching arm, a guy who once scrawled "Joe" and "Table" on his shower shoes, explaining with a shrug, "That's my name."

What, Mesa, worry?

Not about blowing saves.

And not about Eckersley's record, either.

"God's the only one who knows what you're going to do," Mesa said. "If he wants to stop the streak, he'll stop the streak. I just try to go out and do my job."

Which, right now, is more than enough.

Wiley said Randy Johnson is the only pitcher in the league throwing harder than Mesa, who rarely even uses his big-breaking curveball anymore.

Orioles manager Phil Regan taught Mesa a sinking fastball when he was Cleveland's pitching coach last season, and Poole said it gives left-handed hitters "fits."

"If I had known I was going to change teams, I wouldn't have taught him that," Regan said yesterday.

The Indians are 42-1 when Mesa pitches. Twice, he has saved both games of a doubleheader. And, oh yes, he also has worked 25 consecutive scoreless innings, lowering his ERA to 1.19.

Is he the Indians' MVP?

Quite possibly.

Is he the league MVP?

Maybe not, but the Indians' 67-32 record is the best in baseball.

"You can make as good an argument for him as anyone else," Poole said. "What he did at the beginning of the year didn't necessarily mean we'd be in first place, but it allowed us to build a commanding lead. He always put fear in the other team that the game was only seven or eight innings long."

Put it this way: Jeff Russell led the Indians with five saves last season, and the Indians were one game behind Chicago when the strike hit in August. Now Mesa leads the majors in saves, and the Indians are 17 games ahead of Milwaukee.

Mesa for Cy Young.

Mesa for MVP.

Mesa and Eckersley.

"He's been around awhile -- it's not like he just started playing this game," Eckersley said. "He likes being able to just let it go for one inning. He's found his niche."

The record, Eck?

"He can have it," Eckersley said, laughing. "I don't think it's that big a deal."

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