ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Mike Mussina provided the Orioles with their most encouraging piece of news in two weeks here Tuesday night.
Not since they ended a season-high losing streak Aug. 18had the Orioles had just cause for a celebration of sorts. In 8 2/3 strong innings, Mussina (13-5) allowed the California Angels only five hits and struck out seven in the Orioles' 8-2 victory.
"That," said manager Johnny Oates, "is the best he's thrown in quite a while."
It was also the latest Mussina had lasted in a game since going the distance May 31 in a 3-1 win over the Oakland Athletics.
L "I'm on my way, I think," said the 24-year-old right-hander.
"One time out certain things have worked, then the next time they don't, but other things do. The fastball and changeup have been there all along, but the curveball and slider come and go."
There is one other facet of Mussina's game that is constant -- his control. Angels manager Buck Rodgers was particularly impressed with what he saw Tuesday night.
"That was everything we talk about in command pitching," Rodgers said of Mussina's performance. "He was up and down, in and out. He had great command of his pitches."
It was only the third start since July 21 for Mussina, who was on the disabled list with a strained muscle in the area of his right shoulder. But his decline had started more than a month earlier.
On June 11, five days after he was involved in a brawl with the Seattle Mariners, Mussina got the win in a 16-4 thrashing of the Boston Red Sox. At that point he was 9-2 with a 3.05 ERA.
In his next six starts, before going on the disabled list, Mussina was 2-2 with two no-decisions, but pitched a total of only 30 innings and allowed 46 hits and 30 earned runs. Since returning from the disabled list Mussina's numbers are similar to the ones he compiled before his injury. He's 2-1 with a 2.78 ERA and has allowed only 17 hits in 22 2/3 innings.
"It's kind of like April for me," said Mussina. "I'm playing the catch-up game after all the injuries."
The evidence strongly suggests a connection between his involvement in the fight against the Mariners and Mussina's dropoff. But he has said he first experienced difficulty in the right bicep after a 14-strikeout performance in a 3-2 win over Detroit on May 16.
The results of Mussina's next start lend credence to that theory. He gave up five hits, including two home runs, and seven runs in zTC only three innings in a 9-3 loss to Milwaukee five days later.
Oates, for one, is convinced the Detroit game led to the downfall. Mussina threw 141 pitches that night while tying the club record for strikeouts in one game.
"He'll never throw that many pitches for me again," said Oates, who has established a 120-pitch limit for the rest of the season.
Mussina exceeded that by one Tuesday night while coming within one out of recording his fourth complete game of the year.
"That's the best he's thrown since coming back [from the disabled list]," said pitching coach Dick Bosman. "I would say that was vintage Mike."
Perhaps the best indication of all that Mussina is back to where he was the first two months of the season, is his post-game reaction. "Everything was normal," he said. "I feel good."
It's too late to make up for the month he lost and the one during which he was below peak efficiency, but Mussina could still match his 18-5 record of a year ago.
He no longer has a chance to win 20 games, but barring any unforeseen changes, Mussina will get six more starts.
The Orioles can only hope those six starts can help offset the half-dozen he's missed this season.