Now, there is only the remotest hint that

By Ken Berger Associated Press Published:

Now, there is only the remotest hint that Mesa will ever get the job back.

Fans greet Mesa with merciless boos when he unlocks the bullpen door and ventures onto the field. They have given up on Mesa, who has not recovered from his blown save in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series.

Are the Indians ready to give up on him, too?

"He's going through some real tough times right now," said manager Mike Hargrove, who has been Mesa's most ardent supporter since his decline began early in the '97 season. "I fully, honestly believe that Jose Mesa will be a good pitcher for us again."

Hargrove is rapidly becoming the lone voice in that line of thinking.

"When you come out of the pen and you've got 40,000 people booing you, he has to be down a little bit," shortstop Omar Vizquel said. "It would bother me. He says it doesn't bother him, but you can see sometimes that it affects his game."

Mesa, who set a major league record with 46 saves in 48 chances in 1995, has lost his closer's job for the second time in as many seasons. He has given up five leads or ties this month, including an ugly meltdown on Saturday in Cleveland's 9-5, 11-inning loss to the Houston Astros.

Mesa, rarely used in the close games he once relished, entered a tie game in the 11th and was battered for four runs _ an RBI single by Moises Alou and a three-run homer by Carl Everett. Fans at Jacobs Field, who used to shower Mesa with a greeting worthy of Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn in the movie "Major League," let out frustrations that still linger from October.

Though he was available to pitch on Sunday, Mesa never made it out of the bullpen as Houston beat the Indians 12-3.

"I didn't feel it was right to use him after what happened," Hargrove said.

Mesa first lost his closer's job when he went on trial for rape charges early in the '97 season. He was found innocent, and Hargrove skillfully nursed his psyche and arm back to health.

But Mesa blew a one-run lead in a 3-2 loss to Florida in Game 7 of the Series last October, then spent a painful, private offseason contemplating failure in the cruel way closers must. It was Cleveland's best chance to finally win its first Series title since 1948, the year before Hargrove was born.

This year, Hargrove turned the job over to Mike Jackson, who has 17 saves and the intimidating presence that defined Mesa in '95. The chance of Mesa returning to that role is as remote as it has been since he lost it.

"I'm still looking at it that way, but I think it's a little more distant right now than earlier in the year," Hargrove said. "That's not to say Mike Jackson is not a good reliever. I'm glad we've got him."

General manager John Hart tried to sign free agent Rod Beck this past winter, but the deal reportedly fell through when he couldn't line up a trade for Mesa. While columns in two local newspapers on Sunday proposed releasing Mesa _ "Time for Tribe to cut its losses," one headline read _ Hart still publicly supports him.

"We all still believe that Jose is going to be a factor," Hart said. "His stuff is too good."

How is Mesa faring in the maelstrom that surrounds him? He rarely talks with reporters, harboring distrust over the coverage of his rape trial. A private man even in the glory of '95, Mesa has withdrawn even more.

"He's still working hard," Vizquel said. "He's doing all the things they ask him to do. He doesn't have a bad attitude. When you have a guy like that, the thing to do is just give him a little bit more support. We need Jose. We need him bad."

No doubt about it.

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