Mussina delivers cause for optimism amid ruins of '91

MIKE LITTWIN

August 26, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

You come to Memorial Stadium in search of the past and the future. That's what comes of watching a team buried deep in the standings in late August, its season in ruins. All you've got are what was and what might be.

So, you come to see Mike Mussina and hope he reminds you a little of a young Jim Palmer. You see a bright kid with a bright future. He's 22 and talks pitching like he's 32 and knocks off the Twins in the midst of their pennant race. You let yourself think that maybe this is OK, that maybe he's OK, that maybe even the Orioles might someday be OK.

When the Orioles talk about the future, they concentrate on three young pitchers -- Mussina, Ben McDonald and Arthur Rhodes. McDonald, at 23, is struggling. Rhodes, at 21, might be too young. After five games in the big leagues, Mussina is the one starting to impress people.

"I'm not sure where I'd rank him [in the rotation]," pitching coach Al Jackson was saying, "but it wouldn't be at the bottom. You can be sure of that."

He throws the fastball around 90 when he wants to, but he changes speeds off it. He's got two kinds of curveballs, two kinds of changeups. He's got what you could call command. He's a got a degree in economics from Stanford. There's a package there.

"You know he's a bright young man," said his manager, John Oates. "He comes in here to talk and you know he's got an idea."

You don't get too excited, though, because prospects are just that, and Ben McDonald, the can't-miss guy, is missing right now. Everyone believes he'll get straightened out, that it's all a confidence problem, or a mechanical problem, or some kind of problem that can be fixed. But, still, you like what you see in Mussina. You like what you hear, too.

For example, he's cocky. And he's not.

"I don't have respect for any of them, from Double-A up," he said of hitters. "A good pitcher can beat a good hitter. I don't have to throw it 92 on the black or have my best curveball to get an out."

No respect?

"I have great respect for Kirby Puckett," he said, backtracking just slightly. "I have great respect for [Kent] Hrbek. But when they come to the plate with a runner on base, I don't think, 'Uh, oh, Puckett's coming up,' or, 'Hrbek's hitting.' That's what I mean about not having respect."

Oates laughed when he hears that. "I say, 'Uh, oh,' when those guys come up," he said.

But Oates liked it, too. What he likes more is that on one at-bat he powers the fastball past Puckett for a strikeout and on another he takes a little off and gets Puckett to pop up. What Oates likes is what Mussina is learning each time he pitches -- that he can get hitters out, even the good ones.

"That's been a little surprising," Mussina said. "You don't have throw your nastiest pitch all the time."

Then he launched into a pitching lesson, telling you how the fastest isn't always best and that he doesn't want to throw 132 pitches, as he did yesterday. He told you how he's still learning and how he intends to get much better. You enjoy -- and you suspect he does, too -- thinking about a pitcher who could be that much better.

Against the Twins yesterday, he struck out the side in the first inning, but he knew that wasn't what he wanted. He got a lead and he made the Twins hit his pitches, meaning he didn't come out until the ninth, having allowed three runs of which one was unearned. When Oates came to the mound in the ninth, many of the fans booed, and Oates left him in to pitch to one more batter. Manager and pitcher were happy with the exchange, even though Mussina promptly allowed another hit.

"I was glad he had enough confidence in me to give me the option," Mussina said.

That was a test. Much of what is going on now with the Orioles is a test. Oates lets batters hit away in tight situations. He doesn't pinch hit in the ninth for Juan Bell. He wants to see Mussina in the ninth inning.

If each game is a test, Mussina says he likes that. He says he likes it, too, that he has been pitching against some of the better teams in the league, including the Twins, whom he held to three runs -- two earned -- in eight-plus innings yesterday. "I don't want to be tested against any Podunk teams," he said.

The Orioles are using what is left of their season to answer questions about their team. That's why they've got this kid rotation, which got a little older yesterday. Jose Mesa was placed on the disabled list, and old-guard Dave Johnson slipped back in. Bob Milacki, at 27, was the oldest. He's also the steadiest starter on the Orioles, and he'll be back. McDonald will be back. And, as it stands today, Mussina will be, too.

"On the whole, I'm pleased," Mussina said of his five starts. Then paused.

"I think," he said.

Another pause.

"I really haven't sat down and analyzed myself," he said.

Which is OK. Everyone else is doing the analyzing. He can just do the pitching.

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