Same old Mussina is special indeed

Ken Rosenthal

September 17, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

The original Cy Clone never turned into Jim Palmer, but he knows someone who might. "I was a two-pitch pitcher," Storm Davis said, shaking his head. "He's got it all."

He, of course, is Mike Mussina, the wondrous 23-year-old who has now made 41 major-league starts, nearly all of them gems.

This is the young Dwight Gooden in New York, the young Roger Clemens in Boston. Mussina doesn't get the strikeouts, but he's just as brilliant, just as consistent, just as dominant.

It's almost freaky that he's so good at such an early stage of his career. It's even freakier that the whole thing isn't happening by chance, but by design.

Last night, Mussina pitched a four-hit shutout against Kansas City. Today, he'll be back at Camden Yards while the rest of the team is off, doing his running and weight work.

He's smart enough to throw his fastball 90 percent of the time when it's working. He's confident enough to proclaim in an ESPN interview, "I don't respect the hitters."

Davis and a few other pitchers kidded Mussina about that remark one day while shagging flies. "He wouldn't retract it," Davis said. "He has that much confidence in his ability."

It's the whole package, folks -- the smarts to go with the self-assurance, the sweat to go with the stuff. And now, in the middle of a pennant race, Mussina is getting even stronger.

Last Friday, he turned in one of the top five performances by an Orioles starter this season, holding Milwaukee's vaunted running game in check for a 3-2 victory.

Last night, he threw his fourth shutout (the most by an Orioles pitcher since Mike Boddicker in 1984) and seventh complete game (the most since Boddicker in '86).

The 3-0 victory was his fifth straight and 16th of the season. He'd be a leading Cy Young candidate if the bullpen hadn't blown four saves behind him, costing him a shot at 20 wins.

Mussina figures to make only three more starts, and he won't pitch next week against Toronto, but manager Johnny Oates is smart to keep using him on the standard four days' rest.

If the Orioles overtake the Blue Jays, great. If they don't, they can take comfort knowing Mussina, Ben McDonald and Arthur Rhodes could form the nucleus of their rotation until at least 1995, when McDonald becomes eligible for free agency.

Who knows what Mussina might accomplish by then? He might need to add bulk to his 6-foot-2, 182-pound frame, but his mechanics are so sound, there's no reason to believe he'll ever develop arm trouble.

In his first full season, he's allowing only 9.7 base runners per nine innings, fewest in the AL. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is nearly 3-1. He's fourth in the league with a 2.60 ERA.

Freaky, but the only thing Oates finds amazing is Mussina's remarkable consistency at such a young age. Three years at Stanford, 30 minor-league starts and now the guy owns the outside corner.

Last night, Mussina relied almost entirely on his fastball, and no Royals batter reached second base. Two of the four hits came off his knuckle-curve, so he mixed in his changeup in the middle innings, keeping Kansas City off-balance.

Few young pitchers throw an effective changeup, but Davis said Boddicker is the only right-hander he has seen with one better than Mussina's. That's quite a statement, coming from an 11-year veteran who has pitched in both leagues.

In any case, Mussina has now pitched into the seventh inning 34 times in 41 lifetime starts. It looked like he was fading after the All-Star break, but suddenly his fastball is more devastating than at any point in his brief career.

"I knew my arm was tired [in July], but I never feel it's getting away

from me," said Mussina, who won only two of nine starts between June 17 and Aug. 4. "I was working much too hard to get people out.

"As easy as things were at the beginning, that's how difficult it was to get guys out from the All-Star break until the beginning of August. Those were the extremes. Now it feels like it did earlier in the season."

Last season, Mussina's 1.66 ERA after Sept. 1 was the second best in the AL. This season, he's 4-0 with a 1.04 ERA since Aug. 31. He and Rick Sutcliffe are the Orioles' first pair of 16-game winners since 1983, when Scott McGregor was 18-7 and Boddicker 16-8.

That was the Orioles' last world championship team. If they somehow do it again, great. If they don't, they've still got all those years to look forward to Mussina, and McDonald, and Rhodes.

Especially Mussina.

He's not Jim Palmer.

But he's on his way.

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