FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mike Mussina knew it wouldn't last forever, but the perfectionist in him could not let go of his 18-inning Grapefruit League scoreless streak without a moment of self-rebuke.
Minnesota Twins third baseman Luis Quinones brought the streak to an end with a fifth-inning home run in the Orioles' 6-5 exhibition loss yesterday at the Lee County Sports Complex. It was a wind-blown home run at that, but Mussina wasn't letting himself off that easily.
"It's not the runs that bother me," he said. "It was the way they scored the runs that upset me. I gave up a single on a hanging curveball, and then threw a high fastball that Quinones hit the home run on. I knew eventually I was going to give up something. I guess it's better today than two weeks from now."
Though it had seemed unlikely that Mussina could get through the spring without surrendering a run, it continued to be a possibility after he threw four scoreless innings yesterday. He figures to pitch just two more times before the Orioles open the regular season, and he was just four outs away from completing a six-inning shutout against the Twins.
"I never thought that I would go 18 innings before I gave up a run," he said. "I certainly didn't go in thinking I was not going to give up a run all spring, but when you get this far, you start to wonder. Basically, the whole spring has been a surprise. Maybe I'm starting to fall back to reality."
And maybe not. Mussina has pitched consistently well from the moment he entered the Orioles starting rotation last August. He had a 4-5 record in 12 starts last year, but he pitched well in 11 of those games and had a 2.87 ERA. This spring, he opened the exhibition season with a string of 10 1/3 hitless innings. Yesterday, he finally looked a little vulnerable, giving up two runs on five hits.
Manager John Oates isn't complaining. He knew he had a hot property in Mussina, but he also had to figure there would be some growing pains while he got established in the major leagues. It hasn't turned out that way. Mussina is going through that period that pitching coaches call the dead-arm stage, but he still had enough velocity and command to dominate a decent Twins lineup.
"I felt physically lethargic," he said. "The dead-arm syndrome that sets in during spring training set in a little bit. I couldn't get it going in the later innings."
Oates figured some of his streaking starters had to give up runs sooner or later. He even set up Mussina -- and the rest of the hot rotation -- for a reality check before yesterday's game.
"You're not going to be pitching against Double-A and Triple-A hitters at the end of spring training," Oates said. "We just played Boston and Toronto, and those were major-league lineups. Those were the two best lineups in our division. Now you're going to see guys like [Kirby] Puckett and [Kent] Hrbek coming up in the seventh inning, instead of some Double-A guy."
Mussina didn't see Hrbek, who was sidelined with a shoulder injury, but he did see Puckett and designated hitter Chili Davis and about half the Twins regulars. He still came off as the same confident, overpowering pitcher who has helped change the face of the Orioles pitching staff.
If not for his tender years, he would seem like an obvious choice to be the Opening Day starter. His turn falls on the day off before the first regular-season game. He has been the most effective pitcher in the rotation. He has earned consideration. But it appears that the club will hand that honor to veteran Rick Sutcliffe.
The Orioles learned their lesson with Ben McDonald. They aren't about to let another young pitcher get ahead of himself.
"They haven't said anything about the first week of the season," Mussina said. "I just want to be one of the first five. Probably, because of what happened with Ben, they are a little leery. They've been watching over me."
Oates will not rule out anything at this point. The decision on an Opening Day starter probably will be announced on Sunday or Monday. The rest of the rotation will fall into place from there.
"I'd love to start the first game," Mussina said, "but I'm not expecting to. If I get the nod, I'll be as surprised as anyone."