By LARRY HENRY
CHICAGO – He no longer gets booed when he enters a game in his own ballpark.
There was a time, though, and it wasn’t that long ago, when Jose Mesa must have felt like John Rocker coming out of the bullpen in Shea Stadium.
You would hear the jeering begin as soon as Mesa started to warm up. There are some among the Safeco Field fandom who still feel uneasy when he walks to the mound, but he seems to have won over the majority.
He didn’t win over any supporters in the Windy City this week, however, because he didn’t treat the home team kindly in the American League division series. On Wednesday, Mesa pitched 1 2/3innings of perfect relief before handing the game over to Kazuhiro Sasaki, who closed it out with a 1-2-3 ninth as the Mariners beat the White Sox 5-2 to take a 2-0 lead in the series.
The day before, he retired Magglio Ordonez with a runner on second to close out the ninth before the M’s scored three times in the 10th to win it, Sasaki again doing his thing.
Jose Mesa is again feeling wanted.
“I think the big thing for Jose is he needs to feel like he’s an important part of the team,” said pitching coach Bryan Price. “I think that’s what Lou has done well. He has created an environment where every player feels like he’s contributed to helping this team get where it is right now.
“And I think with Jose it was very difficult going from closer and getting all the way to the point where he was coming in even as a middle and long (relief) guy – to feel like he was contributing. We talked to him about that recently and said, ‘Hey, you’re a big part of this team.’ If people haven’t noticed, he pitches in a lot of games that we win.”
Mesa had previously worked in the playoffs, including two World Series, and manager Lou Piniella thought that experience would benefit the M’s in these postseason games. “I think what he’s doing is going out there and showing some leadership,” Price said. “He’s going out there and getting after people. I don’t think it’s anything I did. I think it’s that Lou has given him the ball and he’s responded really well.”
The 34-year-old native of the Dominican Republic has also been a good influence on young Jose Paniagua, who has become a consistent performer out of the bullpen.
“Pany struggled early in the year,” Price said, “and we sat down and said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to get after it. You throw three or four good ballgames in relief (then struggle). You’ve got to keep pushing yourself to get the job done because this game will turn on you if you take it for granted how good things are going.’ “
Price says he started seeing Mesa and Paniagua come to the ballpark together, arriving two hours before the Mariners stretched and heading directly to the weight room to lift and ride bikes. They they’d go out on the field and do their running. After the game, they’d have another session in the weight room.
“That’s exactly what Pany needed to really understand the commitment to consistency because he can be a dominant pitcher,” Price said. “But the one thing he hadn’t been until maybe June was a real consistent pitcher.”
Mesa is very willing to share his knowledge, Price said, but he doesn’t force it on anyone. “He’s not going to treat these young pitchers like they’re kindergartners,” Price said. “They’re either going to respect what he does and how he does it, but if they don’t want it, he’s not going to press it.”
Price never did lose faith in Mesa. Now he’s glad to see that his confidence is paying off.
“We started this year with him coming out of the bullpen and everyone in the entire place standing on their feet and screaming horrible things at him,” he said. “Now he’s coming into the ballgame where Senor Smoke is up on the board and people at least have some enthusiasm for the fact that he’s coming in. I think they’re starting to respect the fact that he does pitch in games we win.”
He did it twice this week.