Mussina discovers limits of durability

KEN ROSENTHAL

August 21, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

He looks like a kid who once got sand kicked in his face, and he puts maximum effort behind every pitch. Sounds like the blueprint for an injury-prone career, but Mike Mussina threw 241 innings last season, and no doubt he'll prove that durable again.

It won't happen this season, not after the 141-pitch outing in Detroit, the brawl against Seattle, the lost month resulting from the muscle strain below his right shoulder. Still, Mussina will learn from this, probably even get better.

"You've never actually been through everything," Mussina said last night after coming off the disabled list to beat the Texas Rangers, 10-5. "If you play this game long enough, there's always a new experience that's going to come up at one time or another."

The good ones adjust, and that's what Mussina does best. Last night he was close to All-Star form, throwing a two-hit shutout for five innings before giving up leadoff homers in the sixth and seventh. The crowd of 46,464 left Camden Yards muttering, 'If only Mussina had stayed healthy, if only . . . '

It's too late for such excuses, and probably for this season, but at least Mussina is back. Whatever happens the final six weeks, the Orioles need not sweat over their future. The way Ben McDonald is emerging, they stand to open the 1994 season with two potential 20-game winners.

Mussina, 24, might look frail, but he's wiry and strong, not a weakling at 6 feet 2, 185 pounds. He throws with near-perfect mechanics, pushing off with his legs, putting minimal strain on his arm, drawing strength from the muscles in his back.

It sounds like the ideal package, but Mussina has had arm trouble in three of the past five seasons -- an elbow injury at Stanford in 1989, a shoulder problem at Rochester in 1991 and now this. Nothing too serious. Just enough to raise concern.

"He should be very durable, but then again, you don't know," Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said. "One of the tests of any athlete is, 'Can you stay healthy?' Obviously, he has the physical ability. If he stays healthy, he'll win a lot of games."

Mussina, of course, did just that before getting injured, and even after his recent slump, he's 34-14 lifetime with a 3.14 ERA. The question now is how he can avoid a repeat of this season and keep his arm in sound condition year after year.

"Ten milkshakes a day," pitching coach Dick Bosman joked, knowing weight is not the issue. Greg Maddux, Mark Langston, Dennis Martinez, David Cone, Doug Drabek -- each is a hard thrower with a slender build, and each has thrown 200 or more innings for five straight seasons.

Mussina?

"He's a lot stronger than what people give him credit for," Rick Sutcliffe said. "Take a look at the fight in slow motion. It looked like [Bill] Haselman knocked him over, but that was because [Jeff] Tackett tackled him from behind. 'Moose' had his arms wrapped around him, and was getting ready to turn him over."

Yet, that was part of the problem, not the solution. Mussina traces his shoulder ailment to his 14-strikeout performance in Detroit on May 16, but now admits that the June 6 brawl against Seattle aggravated the injury.

In any case, you just know how he will react: by examining new forms of conditioning, release points, pitch selections, the works. "He's looking at just about everything," Bosman said. Of course, he is. That's what perfectionists do.

"I might change some things -- trial and error, that's sometimes the way you have to do it," Mussina said. "Obviously, I'm not getting any younger. When the age thing comes in, I'll have to do things different."

His work habits are already good, and they'll get even better. "I always felt like I worked hard and applied myself," said Nolan Ryan, the Rangers' 46-year-old wonder. "But the older you get, the more focused you get, the more disciplined."

Ryan has suffered injuries throughout his 26-year career, going on the disabled list 15 times. Roger Clemens became the best pitcher in the game after undergoing shoulder surgery in 1985. Palmer had rotator-cuff problems that took nearly two seasons off his Hall of Fame career.

The standards of durability have changed -- "I averaged 288 innings for 10 years and people thought I was a hypochondriac," Palmer said -- but the inevitability of injuries has not.

"It happens to everyone who throws overhanded at one time or another," Bosman said. "We're not dealing with robots. We're dealing with human beings."

For two years, Mike Mussina pitched like a robot. His future is no less exciting, now that it's clear he's a human being.

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