While we wonder, Mussina sails on


July 19, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

ARLINGTON, Texas -- This was late Friday night, after the clubhouses had cleared out and there was time for fanciful notions, and someone rattled off Mike Mussina's numbers and put the question to Johnny Oates: Have you thought about what you might be dealing with here?

Meaning that the kid might be more than just a pitcher with obvious talent. Meaning that he might be something truly uncommon.

And Oates nodded. "You have to wonder, don't you?" he said.

This was after Mussina had delivered his 27th straight start in which he made life difficult for hitters, a one-hit, 10-strikeout stuffing of the potent Rangers, whose Ruben Sierra said that "the kid pitched like a devil."

A devil with the major leagues' lowest ERA since last September, with one clunker in 29 career starts, with a 27-12 pro record, with four nasty pitches and such control, speed and poise that Rangers manager Toby Harrah said he "looked like he'd been pitching forever."

How can you not succumb to fanciful notions? How can you not begin wondering if Mussina might just be emerging as much more than a mere fixture in the rotation? A 20-game winner for the next decade? An elite among the next generation of pitchers? A baseball Dream Teamer? Dare we mention names? Another Jack Morris in the making?

How high do you let your expectations reach? The Orioles are reaching that point in their reckoning of this quiet 23-year-old. All around him, the pitching staff is in chaos. The bottom of the rotation is being repainted. Rick Sutcliffe and Ben McDonald are getting hit. Parts of the bullpen are in flux. There is coming and going from Rochester. And Mussina just sails along, sharp every time he pitches, now clearly the No. 1 starter as he nears his first birthday as a major-leaguer.

"I just wonder how many guys in history have started like this," Oates said. "I know you can't count it up, but I find it hard to believe that anyone has done much better right off the bat. Twenty-seven straight effective starts. He hasn't had a bad game this year. It's unbelievable, that's what it is. And you can't help beginning to wonder."

You can't, but is it too much happy talk too soon? Baseball's history is full of half-season heroes. Two years ago, Cincinnati's Jack Armstrong was 11-3 and started the All-Star Game for the National League. Since, he has gone 10-32 and now sits at the bottom of the rotation in Cleveland. You could not have begun to envision it when he was winning, but he completely lost his control and poise. Such things do happen.

Of course, it is impossible to envision Mussina experiencing such a decline right now. Maybe if he had experienced any trouble at any time this season. He has not. Someone asked Friday when was the last time he had been hit hard. Rochester? College? Mussina mentioned the Minnesota game two weeks ago, in which he gave up 12 hits. And one run.

If only the rest of the Orioles' pitchers had such "troubles."

Here is a very strong hunch: Mussina is not another Jack Armstrong. Far from it. Sure, he is due for a dose of reality and a few bad outings, but he is much too accomplished -- yes, at 23 -- to be anything other than what you see now. The Orioles have hit the jackpot.

It's funny. He is average-shouldered, unimposing, unremarkable physically. The sleeves of his uniform flap in the wind, as if he were a Little Leaguer and they ran out of his size and had to give him a bigger shirt. But for a 23-year-old with less than 400 pro innings, he has a frighteningly sure grasp of his art.

"He doesn't have the fastball of Roger Clemens or the curveball of Gregg Olson or the slider of Duane Ward," Oates said. "He may have the best changeup in the league. But what he does have is complete control of all four pitches. He can throw them all at any time in the count. And throw them precisely where he wants them. In the strike zone, but not over the middle. If you can do that, you are going to win."

And do you want to hear something strange? Mussina doesn't think he is throwing any better now than he was last year at Rochester, where he went 10-4 before being recalled.

"My changeup and control are better now, but my curve was consistently better last year," Mussina said. "I would rate the entire package about even, all told."

So that means he can get better, and so the Orioles sit and watch and wonder just how much they should expect. It gets tougher every time he pitches. Can it possibly be this easy? Isn't this game harder than that? But did you see that change-up? That rising fastball? You just can't help wondering, can you?

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