Will real Mussina stand up for O's?

JOHN EISENBERG

September 16, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

BOSTON -- Whether Mike Mussina is injured or just pitching poorly is irrelevant to the Orioles' postseason chances. What is relevant is that the timing is positively horrible. Couldn't be worse.

A Mussina who isn't Mussina doesn't entirely kill off the possibility of the Orioles catching the Blue Jays . . .

. . . but close.

Mussina and Ben McDonald are, simply, the foundation of the Orioles' ability to contend. And when the foundation turns rubbery, what hope is there?

The kind of hope that depends on Fernando Valenzuela and Arthur Rhodes winning all of their starts, and Jamie Moyer continuing not to miss a single step, and maybe the Jays forfeiting a couple of games for bad penmanship or bad language or something like that. You get the idea.

Johnny Oates rearranged his rotation last week to give Mussina and McDonald starts in each of the final series with the Yankees and Blue Jays. They're scheduled to pitch the first two games against the Yankees, the last two against the Blue Jays. Sounds terrific, huh? But how terrific is it if Mussina isn't Mussina?

And he isn't. At least not in his past two starts.

He gave up five runs in six innings against the A's last Friday night at Camden Yards, but that was a pearl compared to last night's performance at Fenway Park, where, on a warm, windy evening at the epicenter of the pennant race, he was nothing if not rubbery. Constantly behind in the count. Constantly in trouble. Brutal.

The UnMussina.

"He was really rushing, really up," Oates said. "More than ever before."

Of the 22 Red Sox he faced, 13 reached base. Four walked. Three hit doubles. Six scored. That's about a month of trouble if Mussina is Mussina. Last night, it was slightly less than four innings' worth.

The Orioles handed him a three-run lead in the top of the second. He gave it all back, and then some, by the bottom of the fourth.

The Sox wound up winning, 6-5, and it hurt because the Jays, looking a tad better lately, scored 108 runs against the Tigers in winning their 42nd straight game. Suddenly, the Jays have a 2 1/2 -game lead, and it's their race to lose.

The Orioles fell to three back after losing two of three to the foundering Sox. It's more like five back if Mussina isn't Mussina.

The truth, of course, is that Mussina hasn't been himself since he plunked the Mariners' Bill Haselman and wound up at the bottom of the brawl at Camden Yards three months ago. That day he improved to 8-2 with a 3.18 ERA. Since, he is but a pale, poor imitation of his All-Star self: 6-4 with a 6.98 ERA.

In other words, since the fight he's just another Arthur Rhodes.

It took him a while, but he finally admitted that he injured his back in the fight, or aggravated an oncoming injury, or something like that. In any event, it didn't help. A month on the DL seemed to help, but then his back and shoulder stiffened up last Friday night.

He said it was no big deal, that he wouldn't miss a start, but he was coy about it. Then came last night's performance, brutal from the beginning, mercifully brief.

"Are you sore?" someone asked after the game.

"My back is sore," he said. "My shoulder is sore. I'm not throwing the ball correctly. That irritates one thing, so I try throwing another way, and it irritates something else."

He was dressed in a coat and snazzy tie. The clubhouse was quiet.

"By not throwing the ball correctly, basically, I don't know where the ball is going," he said. "This time of the year you're supposed to be in a rhythm, the same every time out. I'm just going out there hoping it falls together. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't."

Do you feel worse than last Friday night?

"No worse," he said. "About the same."

Doesn't matter, of course. He's less than perfect, and that's what matters. He's not himself. It's killer stuff. The worst possible news for the Orioles.

They have 16 games left. Mussina is scheduled to start three. If he's Mussina, that's at least two wins and maybe three. If he isn't Mussina, if he's the pale, poor imitation, well, do we have to say it?

"Hopefully we'll find out something tomorrow in Milwaukee," Mussina said. "I'm gonna go over to the ballpark, get some treatment. I'm going to keep working on this thing until I get it right."

The problem is that there is no margin for error. No time for him to round back into shape.

His next start will be in Cleveland next week. He needs to be there. The real Mussina.

Or else.

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