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Mesa gets minors deal from Pirates

PITTSBURGH -- Jose Mesa, who lost his closer's job with the
Phillies late last season after struggling to retire batters with
men on base, agreed Thursday to a minor league contract with the
Pittsburgh Pirates.

The right-handed Mesa, eighth among active pitchers with 249
career saves, likely will compete with another non-roster pitcher _
Juan Acevedo -- to be the Pirates' closer.

Mesa and Acevedo combined for 73 saves in 2002, with Mesa
getting 45 for the Phillies and Acevedo 28 for the Tigers. Both are
coming off poor 2003 seasons.

"You talk to the people in the trenches, and pitching in the
ninth inning is different from pitching in the sixth, seventh or
eighth," Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield said. "Some
guys can do it, some can't. We have a couple competing who have
experience doing it, and that gives us some different options."

Mesa converted 24 of 28 save opportunities last season, but was
replaced by a closer-by-committee situation in September as the
Marlins overhauled the Phillies for the NL wild card.

Mesa allowed 102 runners in 58 innings and had a 6.52 ERA as a
closer. His numbers were especially bad with runners on base -- an
18.69 ERA, with 36 runs allowed in 17 1/3 innings. He had a 21.38
ERA with runners in scoring position and two outs.

"Obviously, he didn't have the kind of year he had in 2001 (42
saves) or 2002, but he sees the opportunity we have with no
returning closer and he hopes to take advantage and have a
bounce-back year," Littlefield said.

The Pirates tried several pitchers in the closer's role after
trading Mike Williams to the Phillies in July, including Mike Lincoln (3-4, 5.20 ERA, 5 saves) and Julian Tavarez (3-3, 3.66 ERA,
11 saves). Both have since signed with the Cardinals.

"At times last year we didn't pitch nearly as well (out of the
bullpen) as in 2002, and it hurt us," Littlefield said. "It's an
area we want to upgrade and, hopefully, having some competition
will help."

Mesa made $5.2 million last season, but wasn't brought back
after the Phillies dealt for Astros closer Billy Wagner. The
left-handed Wagner had a 1.78 ERA and converted 44 of 47 save
opportunities.

Mesa, who will be 38 in May, is a two-time All-Star who has
pitched with the Indians, Giants, Mariners and Phillies. He led the
majors with 46 saves for the Indians in 1995. He pitched in the
World Series with Cleveland in 1995 and 1997.