Posted on Tue, May. 17, 2005
Nearly 39, Pirates closer nearly perfect while his craft takes repeated hits
PITTSBURGH - Pirates closer Jose Mesa is proving there's still a place for him in major-league baseball.
In this season of the lost lead and the blown save, closing out games has become an oft-repeated adventure even for star relievers such as Trevor Hoffman, Dan Kolb and Keith Foulke.
Mesa has been nearly perfect. He will turn 39 next week, an age when most relievers have long since become ex-closers, yet is a major league-leading 13-for-13 in save conversions. He has 23 straight during the past two seasons, and has converted 56 of his past 61 opportunities to become one of 19 relievers with 300.
Think that wouldn't look good to the Cubs, who've seen LaTroy Hawkins blow six saves and convert five? To Colorado, which has three times as many blown saves (nine) as saves (three)? To the AL, which had five blown saves Wednesday alone?
"To think he's almost 40 and still throwing 95 mph ... it's almost unthinkable," manager Lloyd McClendon said.
Mesa (0-1, 2.57 ERA) had to save his career just for the chance to keep saving games. A neat trick for someone best known by many fans for a blown save -- Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, costing Cleveland its chance to finish off Florida.
Stripped of his closer's job by Philadelphia manager Larry Bowa after blowing four chances in 2003, Mesa didn't have a major-league offer before 2004 began.
Only Baltimore and Pittsburgh proposed minor-league deals, and Mesa chose Pittsburgh's of $800,000 in base salary and incentives to remain a closer.
Since joining the Pirates, Mesa shed 15 pounds to get down to 230. "I had to show them I still could pitch," said Mesa, who is 16th in career saves with 305.
Younger pitchers marvel at his long tossing drill, in which he fires a ball from along a foul line to the opposite line. Reliever Salomon Torres said Mesa is so detail-driven he makes the coffee in the bullpen, a chore usually assigned to a clubhouse man.
Mesa, known in the past for his mercurial and occasionally hot-tempered personality, also has helped loosen up what once was a perceptibly tight clubhouse. During a stretch of nine wins in 12 games, players are posting stickers poking fun at each other -- often at Mesa for his age.
With his conditioning and consistency, Mesa thinks he'll be around a while longer. He is making $2 million, a relative pittance for an established closer, and the Pirates have a club option of $4 million for next season.
Maybe it's because the pressure of closing for a non-contender is different from doing so for the Yankees, but Mesa talks of wanting to stay in Pittsburgh.
"I think I've got a lot of miles left," he said.