The Greatest Summer Ever: Jose Mesa

Throughout the 2015 season, Did the Tribe Win Last Night will take a look back at the 1995 Cleveland Indians for the 20th anniversary of their fourth pennant winning season. Included will be historic game recaps, headlining stories and a ranking of the team’s most influential players that truly made 1995 The Greatest Summer Ever. Today looks back at player #2 Jose Mesa.

WARNING:  The following few paragraphs may cause extreme sadness and/or anger that may lead to depression.  In some extreme cases, physical illness may arise and vomiting may occur.  ­Did the Tribe Win Last Night? takes no responsibility for any holes that may be punched in a wall, pillows that get torn in half, or computers/smartphones that may get smashed as well as loss of tears and/or food that was previously consumed.

The Indians held a two run lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning during game seven of the 1997 World Series.  Tribe rookie starter Jaret Wright had pitched brilliantly, as had relievers Paul Assenmacher, Mike Jackson and Brian Anderson.  Between them, the Florida Marlins had only recorded two hits, the biggest being a solo homerun by Bobby Bonilla.  The Indians scored their two runs early in the game; a two run single by Tony Fernandez in the third.

Manager Mike Hargrove brought in his closer, Jose Mesa, in the bottom of the ninth to shut down the Marlins and give the Cleveland Indians their first World Championship in 49 years.  Moises Alou started the inning by lining a single to center.  Bonilla followed by striking out swinging.  Another single by catcher Charles Johnson moved Alou to third base and put runners at the corners with one out.  The next batter, Craig Counsell, lifted a fly ball deep to right fielder Manny Ramirez and Alou tagged up and scored the run that tied game seven of the World Series back up at 2-2.  The Marlins would score a run in the bottom of the 11th inning to win the championship.

Tribe fans have never forgiven Mesa for what happened that night.  They’ve heard stories about how Mesa’s head was not in the game—most famously from the Tribe’s beloved shortstop Omar Vizquel.  In Vizquel’s autobiography, Omar!  My Life On and Off the Field, Vizquel writes of the ninth inning, “The eyes of the world were focused on every move we made. Unfortunately, Jose’s own eyes were vacant. Completely empty. Nobody home. You could almost see right through him. Not long after I looked into his vacant eyes, he blew the save and the Marlins tied the game.”

Mesa became a villain in Cleveland after game seven.  He was dealt by the Indians to San Francisco during the 1998 season and any time that Jose came back to play the Indians he was booed mercilessly.  He was the “poster boy” for the cities long-time curse and Tribe fans wanted nothing to do with the monster that had become Jose Mess-up.

My…how easily we all forget.

Just two years prior to his Game Seven meltdown, Jose Mesa was a hero in the city of Cleveland.  His 1995 season was one for the ages as “Joe Table” (the exact English translation of his name) recorded one of the finest seasons that any closer has recorded in baseball history.  Any time that Mesa jogged into the game from the bullpen meant that the game was over.  The other team had absolutely no chance of winning, and Mesa proved it time and time again.

Mesa recorded his first save on his first try on May 5 against the Twins.  His next two opportunities came the next week in Baltimore and Jose notched two more saves.  The same was true of every game in which Mesa appeared from May 20 through the All-Star break, as Jose’s league leading total rose to 21 in 21 tries at the Mid-Summer Classic in Texas; a game in which Mesa was a first time participant.

By this time, it was clear that Mesa was not only the correct choice for the Indians closer (which was undetermined during spring training), but he was also the best closer in the league.  Mesa had dominated American League hitters with a 2-0 record, the 21 saves and a 1.84 ERA.  His picture was being printed on tee-shirts throughout the city and everywhere that Mesa would go, he had a large crowd of loving supporters around him.  Even during the summer that saw Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum open, Mesa truly was Cleveland’s biggest rock star.

His awesome pitching did not end at the break.  Mesa recorded a save the first day of the second half of the season in both ends of a doubleheader sweep of Oakland.  By the trading deadline in July, Mesa had saved all 29 of his opportunities successfully and got number 30 on August 3.  When that happened, rumblings started that Mesa had a chance to break the record of 36 consecutive saves to start a season.  It was a record that Oakland closer and former Indian Dennis Eckersley had set in his amazing 1992 campaign.  After a road trip saw Jose lock down five more saves in New York and Baltimore, he tied Eck’s record when he recorded save number 36 at home August 18 against the Milwaukee Brewers.

It all seemed so surreal and unlikely, as Mesa was a converted starter who had only successfully saved two out of six career opportunities prior to ’95.  In 1994, the Indians had a “closer by committee” philosophy, as midseason pickup Jeff Russell and rookie Paul Shuey led the Tribe with five saves apiece.  Mesa pitched out of the bullpen for the first time in his career that summer, but was used primarily as a long reliever because he was the Tribe’s best starter the year before.

“When Jose was a starter he would dominate for the first four innings and then kind of lose his command,” Mesa’s longtime catcher Sandy Alomar said.  “I thought he had a tremendous arm to be a closer.  He had a great breaking ball, a slider and a great fastball so he had three quality pitches and (I figured) he would (have success) closing games.”

It certainly was an unlikely road that took Mesa to the point of tying baseball’s consecutive save record, but Jose got his chance to put his name in the record books by himself on August 20.

It was a gorgeous, sunny Sunday afternoon that day when the Tribe hosted the Brewers for the last of their four game series.  The Indians had taken two of the first three games as Milwaukee blasted the Tribe 7-3 on Thursday, but the Tribe came back to win 7-5 on Friday night and 4-3 on Saturday.  The victory on Saturday was highlighted by Eddie Murray’s walk-off solo homerun.

The matchup faced one of the Indians best pitchers, Charles Nagy, against the Brewers knuckleballer, Steve Sparks.  Both pitchers struggled to find any rhythm at the beginning of the game.

Milwaukee centerfielder Darryl Hamilton grounded out to second baseman Carlos Baerga on the first pitch of the game, but future Indian Kevin Seitzer got the Brewers rolling with a one out single back up the middle.  On what should have been an inning ending double play, Milwaukee found themselves with a prime scoring chance when shortstop Omar Vizquel’s rare error on B.J. Surhoff’s grounder put Brewers at the corners with one out.  Nagy loaded the bases when he hit John Jaha and the Brew Crew scored their first run on a sacrifice fly from Dave Nilsson.  It could have turned out worse for Nagy and the Tribe, however, as Surhoff was gunned out by centerfielder Kenny Lofton trying to advance to third on the fly out as well.

Batting in the bottom of the first with a 1-0 deficit, the Indians immediately answered back.  After Sparks got Lofton and Vizquel out to start the inning, Baerga followed with a line single back up the middle.  That brought the red-hot Albert Belle to the plate, and Albert was on a second half homerun tear.  Belle continued his homerun barrage by blasting Sparks’ knuckler over the left field wall for a two run blast.  Belle’s 28th bomb of the season gave the Indians a 2-1 lead.

Still struggling, Nagy gave away the lead in the top of the second.  After getting two quick outs in the inning, Nagy walked Jose Valentin on four pitches.  Valentin stole second and came home to score on Pat Listach’s RBI single.  The score was now tied at 2-2 heading into the bottom of the second.

The Tribe grabbed their lead back in the bottom of the frame, as right fielder Manny Ramirez blasted a line drive rocket onto the homerun porch to lead off the inning.  Nagy then gave the lead right back to Milwaukee in the top of the third, when a bases loaded single to Joe Oliver scored both Seitzer and Surhoff.  With Milwaukee now leading 4-3, Sparks settled in and pitched much better.

Sparks’ knuckleball danced through the Tribe order by shutting them out from the third through sixth innings.  Nagy, meanwhile was dancing in and out of trouble by allowing Brewer hitters to reach base all day, but kept them from scoring until the top of the seventh.

It was in the top of the seventh that Milwaukee finally broke through again.  Nagy had retired Jaha to lead off the inning, but allowed the second batter, Nilsson, to single.  Charlie then got Oliver to lineout to right for the second out, but was pulled from the ballgame after Jeff Cirillo’s single moved Jaha to second.

Nagy was replaced by lefthander Jim Poole to face Valentin.  Poole did his job by getting Valentin to hit a ground ball, but the Tribe defense let them down for the second time that day.  Third baseman Jim Thome fielded the ball cleanly but then fired the ball past Paul Sorrento at first base.  Nilsson scored on the E-5 and Milwaukee now had a 5-3 lead.

Sparks continued to baffle Tribe hitters in the bottom of the seventh as he set them down 1-2-3.  Indian reliever Julian Tavarez answered in the top of the eighth, also setting the Brewers down in order.  The Tribe needed to regain the lead in the bottom half of the eighth if they wanted any chance of Mesa breaking the record.

Milwaukee manager Phil Garner replaced Hamilton with centerfielder David Hulse for the Tribe’s half of the eighth inning.  It is said that “tough hit balls always find the new guy” when a player is entered in as a defensive replacement, and this day was no different.  Baerga scorched Sparks’ 2-1 pitch into centerfield and Hulse twisted and turned before the ball skipped on the rubberized warning track and off the wall.  It caromed away from Hulse and by the time he threw the ball back to the infield Baerga was into third with a leadoff triple.  Belle followed by grounding a ball to Valentin at short and Baerga broke for home.  Valentin fired the ball toward the plate and had Baerga dead to rights.  Carlos, however, alertly stopped and sprinted back to third.  He flopped back in safely with a head first slide and Belle was safe at first as well.  The Tribe now had runners on the corners with nobody out.  The previous night’s hero, Murray, followed with a strikeout at the hands of another Sparks knuckleball for the first out of the inning.  Thome followed with a walk to load the bases, but Ramirez flew out to shallow right for the second out.  With two outs and a two run deficit, the chances looked bleak that Mesa would get a chance to break the record that day.

Luckily for Mesa, the ’95 Indians never believed that anything was impossible.  The next batter, Sorrento fell behind in the count 1-2 before squaring up Sparks’ next pitch.  Paulie lined a double into the right-centerfield gap that scored both Baerga and Belle and moved Thome to third.  The Tribe had tied the game at five, but still needed another run to give their closer a chance.

Garner pulled Sparks from the game and brought in former Reds closer Rob Dibble to face the Indians pinch hitter, Wayne Kirby.  With Mesa now warming up in the centerfield bullpen, Kirby smoked a liner into center for a single.  Thome and Sorrento both scored and the Tribe led for the first time since the second inning, 7-5.  Kirby continued to be a nuisance to Dibble as he stole second and raced to third when Oliver’s throw sailed into centerfield.  Rattled, Dibble walked Lofton and was then pulled from the game.

Angel Miranda was brought in to face Vizquel, who was still looking to make up for the error that he had made earlier.  Omar atoned for his previous blunder by grounding a single through the right side, scoring Kirby and running the score to 8-5 in favor of the Indians.  When Baerga grounded out to end the inning, the stage was set for history.

As the bullpen gate opened, the 41,799 fans rose to their feet to greet their hero.  Jose jogged out to the mound and finished his warm-up pitches to a standing ovation.  When Nilsson stepped into the box to lead off the top of the ninth, it was clear that Mesa was ready to go.

Mesa struck Nilsson out looking, freezing him on a nasty slider.  The next batter, Oliver, got Mesa an out closer by popping up a ball that Sorrento caught in foul territory.  The Brewers had fought back all day and were not going to go quietly, however.  Cirillo worked a six pitch walk off of Mesa bringing Valentin to the plate.  The Milwaukee shortstop was called out on a 2-2 pitch, but the ball got away from the Tribe’s catcher, Alomar.  Valentin hustled down to first and beat Alomar’s throw, putting the possible tying run at the plate.

The crowd held their breath as pinch hitter Matt Mieske dug in, but breathed a sigh of relief when he grounded Mesa’s 2-2 pitch toward Baerga at second.  Carlos fielded the ball and threw a sidearm heave over to Sorrento for the final out of the game.  Mesa had done it.  It was a new record 37 saves in 37 opportunities and Jose’s teammates congratulated their dominant teammate with hugs, high fives and pats on the back.  The Indians dominance continued as well, as they improved their record to 71-34; best in baseball.

Mesa’s streak reached 38 three days later in Toronto but was snapped that Friday night when the Tribe returned home to face Detroit.  Future Indian Chad Curtis blasted a solo homerun off of Mesa in the ninth that sent the game into extra innings.  The game eventually ended on a walk-off homerun by Alomar.  Ironically, Mesa blew his very next save opportunity as well (again to the Tigers) but saved his final eight chances to end his season with an Indian record 46.

To go along with his league leading 46 saves, Mesa dominated in other categories as well.  Jose struck out 58 batters in ’95 compared to only 17 walks.  He gave up only eight earned runs all season and his ERA was a superb 1.13.  Mesa finished second in the Cy Young Award voting to Seattle’s Randy Johnson and finished fourth in the MVP voting.

Mesa’s dominant season continued into the playoffs, as the Indians won seven out of the eight games in which Jose appeared.  He finished the postseason with a 1-0 record, two saves and a 2.70 ERA.  His best game came in game three of the World Series, where Jose went a remarkable three innings to get the win against the Braves.

After 1995, Mesa was never quite as dominant.  He made the All-Star team for the second year in a row in 1996 for the Tribe, but he sported an ugly 2-7 record and had an ERA in the upper 3’s to go along with his 39 saves.

The 1997 season was a disaster for Mesa, as legal trouble followed Jose into April.  He saved only 16 games for the Tribe that summer, as free agent signing Mike Jackson served as the closer while Mesa worked on his personal issues.  After melting down in the ’97 World Series, Cleveland fans never forgave Mesa.

The trade to the Giants occurred on July 23, 1998 where the Tribe sent Mesa along with Shawon Dunston and Alvin Morman to San Francisco in exchange for Steve Reed and Jacob Cruz.  Mesa never recorded a save for the Giants and signed a two year deal with the Seattle Mariners that offseason.

After two years of struggling in Seattle, Mesa resurrected his career with the Philadelphia Phillies by saving over 40 games in 2001 and 2002.  His ERA ballooned to 6.52 in 2003 and the Phillies let Mesa walk at the end of the season.  Adding insult to injury, it was during the ’03 season that the Los Angeles Dodgers star closer Eric Gagne broke Mesa’s consecutive saves record on his way to an astonishing 55 in a row.  Gagne’s streak extended into the ’04 season and eventually settled at a mind-blowing 84 consecutive saves; more than double Mesa’s total.

Jose spent the next four years pitching year-to-year with different teams, signing one or two year contracts in Pittsburgh, Colorado and Detroit.  After being released by the Tigers in June of 2007, he finished his career back in Philadelphia to end the ’07 season.

Just as the fans of Cleveland have not and may not ever forgive Mesa, Jose has never forgiven Vizquel for what he wrote in his book.  After reading the autobiography, Mesa vowed to hit Vizquel in the head every time that he pitched against him.  True to his word, Mesa threw at Omar every single time that they played against each other from then on.

It is really easy to dislike Jose Mesa.  Not just for blowing the most important game in franchise history or for trying to kill a Cleveland legend with his 95+ mph fastball, but just for being the poster boy for Cleveland’s bad luck.  Mesa stands right next to the former Browns running back Earnest Byner as former standout athletes who buried a knife into the hearts of a desperate, struggling city just at the times they thought that their curse may end.  But as easy as it is to hate him right now, it is just as easy to forget that Mesa performed at such a high level during the most exciting season in Cleveland sports history.  For one record-setting summer, Mesa had the entire town of Cleveland wrapped around his finger and he always felt the love from everybody.

Tomorrow:  Albert Belle

Previous Entries:
#26 Dave Winfield
#25 Mark Clark
#24 Wayne Kirby
#23 Alan Embree
#22 Alvaro Espinoza
#21 Herbert Perry
#20 Ken Hill
#19 Jim Poole
#18 Chad Ogea
#17 Sandy Alomar
#16 Tony Pena
#15 Eric Plunk
#14 Paul Sorrento
#13 Paul Assenmacher
#12 Omar Vizquel
#11 Charles Nagy
#10 Orel Hershiser
#9 Julian Tavarez
#8 Eddie Murray
#7 Jim Thome
#6 Dennis Martinez
#5 Carlos Baerga
#4 Kenny Lofton
#3 Manny Ramirez


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