Mussina wins praise, but not game in debut

August 05, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

CHICAGO -- If it's any consolation to Mike Mussina, it took MVP-type credentials to spoil his major-league debut.

The Orioles' No. 1 draft choice last year made his first start after being promoted from Rochester yesterday and got top grades for his effort.

"Very impressive," said Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who watched from the television booth.

"The kid's got composure, I'm anxious to see him pitch again," said Orioles manager John Oates.

"He'll win a lot of games and make a lot of money -- it didn't look like a first game major-league appearance to me," said Charlie Hough.

However, other than a lot of compliments, the only thing Mussina got was a 1-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox. He was a 1-0 victim of a sixth-inning home run by Frank Thomas and the knuckle-balling artistry of Hough, who made his big-league debut (1970) when Mussina was 20 months old.

For the afternoon, Mussina allowed four hits and four walks. Three of the hits and one walk went to Thomas, a giant of a man who is putting up numbers to match his size (6 feet 5, 220 pounds).

"He has a chance to be an outstanding ballplayer," Oates said after Thomas enabled the White Sox to salvage the last game of the series.

You wouldn't necessarily expect a guy who has 22 home runs and 79 runs batted in, which Thomas does, to also be leading the league in walks (91) and on-base percentage (.455). But in less than two years, Thomas has proven himself to be a major force to be reckoned with in the American League. In the process he has established himself as a legitimate MVP candidate this year.

Orioles reliever Gregg Olson was a teammate of Thomas' at Auburn University, and Ben McDonald pitched against him while a member of the LSU team. Both say that Thomas is the same kind of hitter now that he was then.

"He was always very selective," said Olson. "He doesn't go up there looking to hit home runs. He's looking to get a hit and he's very patient. You could tell he was going to be a good hitter and he's having a great year."

McDonald had reasonable success against Thomas in college, but gained a lot of respect for the big slugger. "What was most impressive about him in college was that he could hit off-speed pitches," said McDonald.

"In college, you expect guys to be able to hit fastballs. But he hit all pitches -- curveballs, changeups and fastballs.

"Like everybody else, he'll chase a pitch now and then -- but not very often," said McDonald. "He was [and is] very patient and hit for a high average in addition to having a lot of power."

It was a changeup from Mussina that Thomas hit for his home run yesterday, but nobody was second-guessing the selection. "He [Mussina] has a good changeup and it wasn't a bad pitch," said catcher Bob Melvin. "He threw it for a strike with a 2-and-1 count."

Thomas had flared a single to right on his previous at-bat and finished his afternoon with a high bouncer that carried over the head of third baseman Leo Gomez and went for a double. The first and last hits were of the fortunate variety, but there was no doubt about the charge he put into the home run.

"Hitting is timing and right now my timing is real good," said Thomas, who hit .520 (13-for-25) with five home runs and 13 RBIs for the just concluded week. "Home runs are perfection -- timing and putting the right swing on the ball."

Yesterday the timing was not so good for Mussina as Thomas put a perfect swing on one pitch and Hough made it stand up for a win.

"Even though it hurt him a little, Mike threw a lot of good changeups," said Oates. "He throws strikes, he's not a thrower, and it's very seldom you get a college kid who has the composure like he has."

Mussina admitted that it took a while for the composure to take control of his nervous system. "About the third inning," he said, when asked when the first game jitters wore off.

"I was pretty nervous at first," he admitted. "It took me a while to get used to the field, to being out there and looking up at all those people. Usually there's a lot of empty seats."

Once accustomed to the surroundings, Mussina locked into a groove.

"Everybody makes a big deal of his knuckle-curveball," said Melvin, "but it's his other pitches that set it up. Fastball hitters can go up there looking for a first-pitch fastball and still not get a good swing because he paints the corners with it.

"He was a little nervous at first, but after that he threw all of his pitches for strikes and his off-speed stuff was good. He pitched very well."

The problem was that Mussina had almost no chance to win. On a blustery day, Hough used his knuckleball to tantalize the Orioles all afternoon. "He had such good command," said Dwight Evans, whose two-out liner with runners on second and third was speared by Hough in the eighth inning.

"He might not get it [the knuckleball] in a specific place, but he can throw it to an area and he changes speeds on it. The one he threw me, he sort of flicked it out there -- then he stayed back and caught the ball."

That was as close as the Orioles came to scoring all day.

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