CHICAGO -- The Baltimore Orioles starting rotation finally has begun to take shape, and it is the shape of things to come.
First-round draft choice Mike Mussina made his major-league debut with a flourish yesterday, even if he did come out on the losing end of a 1-0 pitching duel with a guy who was old enough to be his father.
Chicago White Sox knuckleballer Charlie Hough pitched a five-hit shutout to prevent the Orioles from extending their winning streak to four and sweeping the three-game series at Comiskey Park.
But at this point in the Orioles season to forget, it is not whether you win or lose, but how your young players perform down the stretch.
Mussina performed like a champion, giving up four hits over 7 2/3 innings, his only real mistake a sixth-inning changeup to Frank Thomas that disappeared into the left-field bleachers and decided the game.
"He threw well," manager John Oates said, "but that old sucker threw well, too."
Hough fielded well, too. In the eighth inning, with runners on second and third and two out, he caught Dwight Evans' line drive.
"If it goes through, it's a hit," Hough said. "Luckily, he caught it on the end of the bat and it wasn't hit real hard."
The afternoon was an unqualified success, anyway. The Orioles are inning jitters -- which is understandable considering the crowd of 41,059 -- but Mussina held the Sox to one hit and three walks through the first five innings. Thomas kept it from being a near-perfect day with three hits, including his 22nd home run and a pair of doubles.
"I just had to get acclimated in the first few innings," Mussina said. "It was something different looking up and seeing all those people. I needed a couple of innings to settle the adrenalin down."
The 22-year-old right-hander averaged 1.9 walks in 19 starts for the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings, but he walked two of the first three batters he faced yesterday before working out of the jam. He also walked a batter in the second before settling down to carry the shutout into the sixth.
"I wasn't surprised," Oates said. "I knew he had good stuff and he could throw it for strikes. If you've got good stuff and strikes, it's going to equal a lot of good games. But it's seldom you get a young kid -- even a kid out of college -- that has that kind of control and composure."
The White Sox were impressed. So were their fans, who gave Mussina a nice ovation when he left the field after turning the game over to rookie reliever Jim Poole.
"He was tough all day," said Hough, 43, who pitched his 12th career shutout. "He'll win a lot of games and make a lot of money. It didn't look like a first-game major-league appearance."
Thomas was the only White Sox hitter who seemed to have a clue. He reached base four times (including a walk) to account for half of his club's base-runners. The home run came on a fat changeup.
"I just hung it," he said. "He hit it. That's what he's supposed to do. That's why he's getting paid what he is."
The rest of the Chicago lineup flailed unsuccessfully at the knuckle curve, a pitch Mussina developed in high school because he couldn't throw an effective curveball.
"He has great control with it," said third baseman Robin Ventura, who managed a walk in four trips to the plate. "He only threw it once to me, but when he threw it to everybody else, it was tough. He's going to be around for a long time."
The Orioles hope that's true, since their success over the next few years will depend heavily on the performance of Mussina and 1989 No. 1 draft pick Ben McDonald.
Mussina had faced the White Sox one other time, pitching three innings against them during spring training. He gave up four hits and three walks in that exhibition appearance, but came back to pitch much better when it counted.
Perhaps the 19 starts at Rochester made the difference, but there was some thought given to putting Mussina in the rotation to start the season. He says the decision to wait was the right one.
"I think they were waiting for the right moment," he said. "They wanted to make sure I could handle it. I don't want to be on the shuttle. I don't want to go back and forth. I hope I'm ready to stay here."
No doubt, he'll be in the rotation for the remaining two months of the season and give the Orioles an opportunity to look into their future.