Too bad Mussina can't be perfect

KEN ROSENTHAL

April 08, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Earlier this spring, Storm Davis said there were two things he'd miss as a former Oriole: watching Cal Ripken play and Mike Mussina pitch.

Ripken, because every time he takes the field, he makes history. Mussina, because every time he takes the mound, something incredible might happen.

No, Davis didn't mention Gregg Olson, but woe be the first talk-show caller who demands the Orioles find a new closer. We'll say this once, and move on: The Otter will be fine.

Problem is, Mussina was his usual remarkable self last night and it wasn't good enough. The Orioles lost to the Texas Rangers, 3-1 in 11 innings, and now the entire city is in a cold sweat.

Need we mention what happened five years ago after the locals started 0-2? Sorry, but the flashbacks are rather painful for those unlucky souls who will never get over Jeff Stone.

Hey, at least the Orioles got the sellout record.

So nice to beat Toronto at something.

Anyway, don't blame Mussina. It's almost never his fault. Last night, he pitched into the seventh inning for the 38th time in 45 career starts. Too bad the Orioles couldn't solve Charlie Leibrandt and the rest of the hellacious Texas staff.

Texas won it in the 11th when pinch hitter Doug Strange made like Curtis Strange with a 3-wood, crushing Olson's second pitch of the season over the right-field scoreboard for a two-run homer.

Strange is a switch-hitter who hits better left-handed, but manager Johnny Oates already had used his only lefty reliever, Jim Poole. With one out and a man on second, the choice was to either stick with Todd Frohwirth or summon Olson.

It wasn't much of a decision -- Olson has held left-handed hitters to a .187 average in four major-league seasons, and the next two hitters also were left-handed. Strange's homer was only the 10th he has allowed in 306 career innings.

No, it wasn't all Olson's fault, either.

The Orioles went 0-for-12 with men in scoring position, a fine way to ruin a masterpiece by their ace. Their one run scored when Glenn Davis hit into a double play in the eighth.

Last season, Davis already was injured by the time the Orioles played their second game. So, even though he's 0-for-9 with three strikeouts and two GIDPs, he's ahead of the program.

Mussina went eight innings, allowed four hits, struck out nine, walked one. Oates removed him after 110 pitches, 13 more than the right-hander threw in his longest spring start. Ideally, Oates prefers to keep him under 120.

"I wanted to go back out, but it's early in the season," Mussina said. "If this were later in the year, I think they would have let me go out for the ninth inning. I understand the situation and accept it."

The fact is, he almost needed to throw a no-hitter, or better still, a perfect game. It will happen someday, but even on so disappointing a night, the Orioles could take comfort in the portrait of the young artist.

Mussina, 24, hasn't lost a decision in 10 starts since last Aug. 10. Included in this memorable stretch was a 5-0 record last September, with the Orioles in the thick of a pennant race.

Since August 1991, his first month in the majors, he has posted a 2.36 ERA, the best in the American League. Mussina was a real dog that first month. His ERA was 3.31.

Fear not another 0-21 -- a five-game losing streak is unlikely with Mussina taking a regular turn. Last night, he dominated the same Texas club that pounded Rick Sutcliffe on Opening Day.

The only run off him came on a second-inning homer by Dean Palmer, a .213 lifetime hitter on a 243-home run pace. Palmer paid for his insolence. Mussina popped him up his next two times at bat.

And the other Opening Day hero, Juan Gonzalez?

Three strikeouts in three at-bats against Mussina.

Texas' first five hitters went 0-for-14 against Mussina. Does the kid ever get hurt when it counts? With the bases empty last season, his opponents batted .251. With runners on base, .218. With runners in scoring position, .175.

The latter figure was the second lowest in the majors behind Kevin Appier (.167). Mussina's 9.78 base runners per nine innings was the lowest in the AL.

All he did was finish 18-5 with a 2.54 ERA, becoming the first second-year AL pitcher to win that many games with that low an ERA since Ron Guidry went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA in 1978.

The best part is, there's more to come.

Yes, even after last night.

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