ANAHEIM, Calif. - Standing uncomfortably alone without a sense of control, Jose Mercedes found himself in the compromising position of having walked four consecutive hitters in the third inning of yesterday's game against the Anaheim Angels.
Orioles pitching coach Sammy Ellis already had exhausted his one mound visit for the inning. Brook Fordyce had tried everything a catcher could do for his struggling pitcher. Now Mercedes stood with a full count, two outs, a one-run lead and the bases loaded against Angels right fielder Garret Anderson, one pitch away from manager Mike Hargrove coming for the ball.
"I was doing what I wanted to do but they wouldn't swing at the pitch," Mercedes remembered later. "I was doing what I wanted to do but they weren't swinging."
What Mercedes wanted most against Anderson was one more strike. After several two-strike pitches were fouled away, Mercedes got Anderson to line out to right fielder Brady Anderson on the warning track.
With one pitch, Mercedes (12-5) rescued his game, eventually won by the Orioles, 10-3.
With one game, Mercedes showed how he has evolved from an April stopgap to what Hargrove describes as "our most consistent starting pitcher this season."
With one season, Mercedes, 29, has crafted a career-high 12 wins and found a sense of belonging.
Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift watched intently from the Edison Field press box as Mercedes gutted his way through six innings, surviving only because of a freakish combination of three hits, eight walks and four double-play ground balls. The Orioles padded Mercedes' 2-1 lead with four runs in the fourth inning against Angels left-hander Scott Karl (0-2), who lasted just 3 1/3 innings.
"He had nothing warming up, and he had nothing in the game," noted Hargrove, who also observed that Mercedes' "nothing" was enough to secure 18 outs while the Orioles continued their 14-hit pounding of four Angels pitchers.
As he left the press box, Thrift was asked whether Mercedes had shown enough to merit a spot in next season's rotation.
"Absolutely," Thrift said. "That's the easiest question I've been asked all year."
Ah, but the questions haven't always been this easy. Certainly, no one could have anticipated Mercedes as the answer for a shapeless staff in June.
"He doesn't rely on one pitch," said Hargrove. "If anybody could go out there and do what he did today, it would be him. He's not afraid for the hitters to make contact. A lot of pitchers go out there with the idea they'd just as soon avoid the contact. Not him."
Three months ago, Thrift was unsure if Mercedes even belonged in Baltimore. A move to the bullpen coincided with the pitcher's loss of velocity. A decision was made to option Mercedes to Rochester and Hargrove notified him after a game at Camden Yards. However, an administrative oversight in which the Orioles first neglected to secure waivers meant the option was never filed.
Mercedes stayed and returned to the rotation for good on July 29. He is since 7-1 with seven quality starts in nine appearances and his nine wins since the All-Star break are most in the American League, one more than the New York Yankees' Andy Pettitte and the Boston Red Sox's Pedro Martinez.
The Orioles didn't have to worry about runs yesterday. Six players enjoyed multiple hits, including first baseman Chris Richard, who homered for the second consecutive day before friends and family up from San Diego. Eugene Kingsale and Brady Anderson scored twice while left fielder Delino DeShields drove in three runs with a single and double.
Mercedes insisted to the Orioles this season he was best suited as a starter. He has followed through, 11-3 with 3.87 ERA in the rotation compared to 1-2 with a 4.44 in relief.
Mercedes' ERA as a starter is actually lower than teammate Mike Mussina (3.91), who ranks fifth in the league in that category. He has pitched at least six innings in 11 consecutive starts and lost only when the Orioles were shut out during the span.
"I've been a starting pitcher since the start of my career. So it's no surprise to me," said Mercedes, who had never won more than seven games in five major-league seasons. "This is my job. As a starter, you have an opportunity to win and lose games. I know I can do my job."
By penning the arbitration-eligible Mercedes into next season's rotation, the Orioles can put him beside Sidney Ponson as the only certainties beyond this October. Pending free agent Mike Mussina recently rejected the club's modified six-year, $72 million contract proposal. Scott Erickson will miss at least the majority of next season recovering from "Tommy John surgery." The club must make a decision on whether to assume Pat Rapp's option for next season. Hargrove hedged yesterday when asked whether he'd welcome two rookies into next year's rotation.
Originally signed by the Orioles in 1989 as a free agent only to be lost to the Milwaukee Brewers in the 1994 Rule 5 draft, Mercedes reflected on the last several months. He then said succinctly, "It's nice to be back home."
Opponent: Anaheim Angels
Site: Edison International Field, Anaheim, Calif.
TV/Radio: No TV/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Mike Mussina (9-13, 3.91) vs. Angels' Matt Wise (3-3, 5.54)