I could rattle off all the big saves in Mesa's Indians career, whether it be clinching the first division title in franchise history in 1995, or striking out Roberto Alomar to clinch the 1997 ALCS. I could go through his magical 1995 season, which came just about out of nowhere. I could tell that Mesa ranks in the top 15 All-Time in saves (14th) and Games Played (11th). But all those accomplishments are overshadowed by what Jose Mesa did in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 1997 World Series.
If you say the words "Jose Mesa" to any Indians fan who watched that game, you'll probably see a visceral reaction akin to being punched in the stomach. There was way more to that series than just Mesa allowing the tying run to score in Game 7, but unfortunately it's the first thing you think about, and shudder while doing so. Had he preserved the Indians' 2-1 lead, had he gotten Craig Counsell to pop up to the infield, Jim Eisenreich's grounder would have ended the series, and Mesa would have saved the championship that Clevelanders had been waiting on for so long. The difference between ignomy and heroism in baseball is such a fine line, and never was that in evidence on that October night 15 years ago.
Jose Mesa was born in Pueblo Viejo, Dominican Rpublic and signed at age 15 with the Toronto Blue Jays. He was brought to the United States in 1982, and spent the next six seasons as a starter in the Blue Jay system. He was moved up the ladder despite having severe control problems; in one season, he walked 79 batters in 106.2 innings. But given his age and his stuff, he continued to not only remain in the rotation, but also high in Toronto's plans. in 1987 they optioned him to AA Knoxville just before the season began. Apparently other teams were intrigued with him despite the wildness, and he was the Player to Be Named Later in the deal that sent Mike Flanagan to Toronto in August.
Mesa pitched 31.1 innings with the Orioles in September 1987, and wouldn't return to the majors until 1990. It looks like he was injured in both 1988 and 1989, though I couldn't find out exactly what was wrong. He was healthy again in 1990, pitching well in both Hagerstown (AA) and Rochester, and returned to the Orioles at the end of the 1990 season, split his 1991 campaign between Baltimore and Rochester, and and didn't go back to the minors after that. In 1992 he started the season in the rotation but struggled, allowing a 5.19 ERA in 67.2 innings. Presumably out of options by now, the Orioles had had enough and dealt him to the Cleveland Indians after designating him for assignment; Baltimore got Kyle Washington, a 22-year-old outfield prospect who would never make it to the majors.
The Indians, desperate for starting pitching, kept Mesa in the rotation the rest of 1992 and all of 1993. He was decent in his first season with the Indians, but regressed the following year, and the Indians then made the fateful move of moving Mesa into the bullpen. The move wasn't really planned, for as late as early March Mesa was a contender for the rotation. But the Indians made the call towards the end of Spring Training, hoping that cutting down on Mesa's pitches would make him a more effective pitcher.It did, as Mesa was effective as a setup man in a bullpen that was still trying to recover from the tragic loss of Steve Olin and Tim Crews the year before. In 1994 the Indians didn't really have an everyday closer, as seven pitchers recorded saves, including Jeff Russell, Erick Plunk, Derek Lilliquist, Steve Farr, and Shuey. Mesa did save two games, but mostly he was used as the seventh inning or eighth inning setup man.
In 1995, manager Mike Hargrove named Mesa the full-time closer, and the rest was history. Mesa saved an amazing 46 games in that strike-shortened season, saved a then-record 37 games without a blown save, and appearrf in 57 of the Indians' 144 games. He was on the mound when the Indians clinched their first postseason berth in 41 years:
Mesa would not get a save opportunity in the ALDS, but would finish three of the four Indians wins in the ALCS, including finished off the Mariners in Game 6. Jose would pitch three scoreless innings in Game 3 of the World Series and saved Game 5 despite allowing two runs. The Indians would lose Game 6 and the World Series.
In 1996 Mesa was not nearly as good, but still effective as the team's closer, making his second consecutive All-Star team. The Indians would once again cruise to a division title and a first-round matchup with the Baltimore Orioles. Even though the Indians had the best record in the American League, they started the series in Baltimore, losing both games. They won Game 3 on the strength of an Albert Belle grand slam, and led Game 4 3-2 after the fifth inning. Manager Mike Hargrove then went into matchup mode, using four pitching from the beginning of the seventh inning to the end of the eighth inning. So by the time Jose Mesa was brought in to close the game out, the Indians had used all their key relievers. Which wouldn't have been problem had not Roberto Alomar hit driven home the tying run with two outs in the inning.So Mesa stayed in to pitch the tenth, eleventh, and finally would face Alomar again to begin the twelfth inning:
Mesa would later give up a double to Cal Ripken before finally being removed by Hargrove. The Indians would fail to score in the bottom of the inning, giving Baltimore the series.
That offseason most of the talk was about Albert Belle's decision to take his talents to the South Side of Chicago, not the ALDS loss, and there was no closer controversy. The Indians though not only brought back key setup man Eric Plunk, but they also signed Mike Jackson, hoping to reinforce a bullpen that had shown some flaws after a flawless 1995. However, Mesa did make the headlines due to problems in the legal arena. Mesa was charged with rape that winter based on an incident in late December 1996. He was acquitted of that charges in early April, just as the 1997 season was getting under way.
In 1997 Mesa only saved 16 games. The rotation had been great in 1995 and very good in 1996, but by 1997, Dennis Martinez was gone, Orel Hershiser wasn't as good, and Jack McDowell got hurt. So there weren't as many save opportunities as in previous years. But most of the reason came due to Mesa himself. He lost the closer's job to Mike Jackson in late may after losing in two consecutive appearances. He would regain the role in mid-August and hold it through the remainder of the season and into the playoffs.
Mesa would make 11 appearances that October,appearing in two of the five ALDS games, four of the 6 ALCS games, and five of the seven World Series games. He would throw 13.2 innings. Mesa saved Game 5 of the ALDS, dispatching the defending champion Yankees. He would blow two save opportunities against the Orioles in the ALCS, but the Indians would end up winning both games. In the eleventh inning of Game 6, Mesa was brought in to protect a 1-0 lead, and faced nemesis Roberto Alomar with two outs:
Mesa would not get a save opportunity in the World Series until Game 6; with a 4-1 lead, he allowed a one-out triple to Devon White but otherwise retired the side in order, sending the World Series to Game 7.
You could write a 200+ page book on Game 7 alone. From Jaret Wright's outstanding start, to Bip Roberts' sickness, to all the missed opportunities, that game had just about everything. Including a ninth inning comeback. With the Indians leading 2-1, Hargrove called on Mesa to clinch a series one more time. Mesa had rarely had a clean inning that postseason, and once again he allowed a base runner when Moises Alou singled to start the inning. Mesa came back to strike out Bobby Bonilla, but Charles Johnson's single sent Alou to third with one out. Craig Counsell drove home Alou with a fly out to deep right field, tying the game.
The Indians would keep the Marlins off the board in the tenth, though it wasn't without drama. After allowing consecutive singles with one out to Edgar Renteria and Gary Sheffield, Mesa struck out John Cangelosi before being relieved by Charles Nagy. The Indians would of course lose the game and the series in the eleventh.
Mesa remained with the Indians in 1998, but not as the closer; Mike Jackson was now the full-time closer, and in July Mesa was part of a deal that brought the Indians Jacob Cruz and Steve Reed. Mesa became a free agent that winter and signed with the Seattle Mariners. He would pitch until 2007, ten years after the most important game in his life.
When Omar Vizquel released his autobiography Omar! in 2002, he talked about Jose Mesa in Game 7:
'The eyes of the world were focused on every move we made,'' Vizquel wrote. ''Unfortunately, Jose's own eyes were vacant. Completely empty. Nobody home. You could almost see right through him. Jose's first pitch bounced five feet in front of the plate, and as every Cleveland Indians' fan knows, things got worse from there. Not long after I looked into his vacant eyes, he blew the save and the Marlins tied the game.''
Mesa obviously took exception to that passage, and vowed to hit Vizquel every time he faced him.
Indians Career Stats
|CLE (7 yrs)||3.88||341||48||195||104||647.1||657||305||279||52||224||447||22||116||9.1||0.7||3.1||6.2||2.00|
Cleveland Indians Career Leader
- 46th BB/9 (3.114)
- 18th SO/9 (6.215)
- 13th Games Played (341)
- 3rd Saves (104)
- 45th Strikeouts (447)
- 20th SO/BB (1.996)
- t-43rd Wild Pitches (23)
- 3rd Games Finished (195)
- t-18th Adjusted ERA+ (116)
Cleveland Indians Season Leader
- t-22nd Games Played (69, 1996)
- t-36th Games Played (66, 1997)
- t-62nd Games Played (62, 1995)
- 1st Saves (46, 1995)
- t-6th Saves (39, 1996)
- t-32nd Saves (16, 1997)
- 4th Games Finished (60, 1996)
- t-6th Games Finished (57, 1995)
- t-32nd Games Finished (38, 1997)
AL All-Star: 1995, 1996
1995 AL Rolaids Reliever Award
AL MVP Voting: 4th, 1995
AL Cy Young Voting: 2nd, 1995
Career Games Played: 11th (1,022)
Career Saves: 14th (321)
Career Games Finished: 14th (633)
AL Saves: 1st, 1995; 2nd, 1996
AL Games Played: 2nd, 1994; 6th, 1995