Jose Mercedes had come full circle this season, forming a black hole that doubled as the fifth slot in the Orioles' rotation. He earned a job there out of spring training, was moved to the bullpen and became a starter again earlier this month. He tried to succeed last night where others, including himself, had failed.
This had been the place, at the end of the rotation, where games and opportunities were lost. But Mercedes changed that against the Florida Marlins, giving the Orioles seven quality innings in a 5-3 victory before 37,591 at Camden Yards.
Mike Timlin picked up his fourth save in as many tries and his 11th overall, cementing his claim as the closer and improving the Orioles' record to 40-51. Delino DeShields and Brady Anderson homered in support of Mercedes (4-4), whose last win in the rotation came April 22 in Oakland. It also was the last time a fifth starter had been victorious.
DeShields staked the Orioles to a 2-0 lead in the first inning when he connected off Marlins pitcher Reid Cornelius (3-3) after Mike Bordick had reached on a fielder's choice. It was DeShields' second homer in two games after being held down since May 7.
He also delivered the tying run in the third inning with a sacrifice fly, giving him six RBIs in the last two games. Bothered by neck pain and a sore thigh muscle, DeShields hadn't driven in a run since June 30 before bingeing against the Marlins.
"The three days at the All-Star break did a world of good for him," said manager Mike Hargrove.
They must not have hurt Mercedes, either. He gave the Orioles his longest outing of the season, surpassing the six innings he turned in during a 10-9 loss in Minnesota April$14. He was lifted after seven innings with the Orioles ahead, 4-3. He allowed seven hits, only two after the third inning, walked none and struck out two.
On the verge of racking up another high pitch count, Mercedes became more economical after the third. He had thrown 82 after six innings, and needed only eight to complete the seventh. He became more effective despite tightness in his left side that worried Hargrove enough to begin warming up Gabe Molina in the third, when the Marlins scored all their runs.
"Somehow I got by and came out of it with a good game," said Mercedes, who replaced Jason Johnson in the rotation after the right-hander failed to win in 12 starts. "The third inning is when I felt it. I wasn't able to throw the ball the way I wanted to. A couple pitches hung in the strike zone and they hit them. I said, 'Forget it. I'm throwing whatever I have,' and that was my sinker. I went with that, and if it [his side] bothers me, it bothers me."
It had been nine days since Mercedes' last appearance, the better to forget.
Given another chance as a starter, he gave up nine runs (six earned) in three innings in Philadelphia, throwing 80 pitches before Hargrove went to his bullpen. The first inning was a minefield and Mercedes kept taking the wrong steps, allowing five runs after being handed a 2-0 lead.
The footing became treacherous again last night, when the Marlins used a double and two-out error to create a first-inning rally. This time, Mercedes maintained order by getting Mike Lowell to hit into a force at second.
More trouble arrived in the third inning when Luis Castillo reached on an infield hit after falling behind 0-2, and Mark Kotsay lined a single up the middle. Cliff Floyd drove in Castillo with a single into center field, and Preston Wilson drilled a two-run double into right-center field.
Mercedes got the last two outs, stranding a runner on third, and the Orioles gave him the lead back on DeShields' fly ball and a two-out single by Albert Belle that produced his 72nd RBI. Mercedes never pitched from behind after that.
"We were concerned which Jose would show up, the one that had good outings out of the bullpen or the other side of Jose. And the good one showed up tonight," Hargrove said.
"He was less tentative tonight. He threw a lot of strikes, got ahead of a lot of hitters. When you pitch ahead of hitters, the results have a way of turning in your favor."
Mercedes made the club as a nonroster invitee this spring in part because he threw strikes. Last night marked the first time in six starts that he didn't walk a batter.
"It's about mechanics," he said. "When you lose your mechanics, you lose your release point and the ball goes wherever it wants to go."
Taking aim at right-center field, Anderson homered in the eighth to give the Orioles a 5-3 lead after Mike Trombley had gotten the last out in the top of the inning to strand the tying run.