Mussina questions if he'll ever regain pre-fight form

March 26, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- He doesn't know the routine. He lacks a bank of experience to teach him how to embrace the parlance of a pitcher recovering from an arm injury.

Mike Mussina is not aware he is supposed to read from a script soaked in denial.

You know the speech, even if Mussina does not: "I am every bit the pitcher I was two years ago. Never mind the inflated spring ERA, I am just out there working on my pitches. And how about those bloops?"

Mussina's answers come not from that script, rather from a gut sending mixed signals yet screaming one message: Stop looking back before you tear me apart.

"I wish I hadn't gotten in a fight," Mussina said yesterday, for the first time expressing self-doubts about ever being the same pitcher again. "I wish I wouldn't have thrown so many pitches. I wish I wouldn't have forced myself to go out there and pitch when I wasn't right. But if I keep going over those things, I'm going to give myself an ulcer. I just have to move on."

Mussina's sore shoulder and stiff back forced him on to the disabled list from July 22 to Aug. 19. Shoulder problems ended his season in mid-September.

In 12 starts before getting hurt in the brawl against Seattle in early June, Mussina had a 2.86 ERA. In 13 starts after the fight, it was 6.37. His 140-plus-pitch, 14-strikeout start against Detroit on May 16 subtly wore on his shoulder as well, Mussina and manager Johnny Oates both have said.

In five spring starts, Mussina has a 6.10 ERA.

He threw 82 pitches and left yesterday's start two outs into the seventh. He allowed four runs (three earned) on one walk and 10 hits in a 13-6 win over the Minnesota Twins.

The shoulder discomfort he felt last season is gone, but the pre-injury magic has not taken its place. Not yet anyway.

"I know the ability is there, but I may never find the same ability again because I was thrown out of whack by an injury," he said. "Guys do come back from arm injuries, even arm surgeries. Roger Clemens is the best example. There is no reason to think I won't go back to being a 2.5 [ERA], 2.6, 2.7 pitcher again, but at the same time you have to be realistic. I do know I can get it under 6.00."

Mussina said he is happy with the location of his pitches and three walks in 20 2/3 innings suggest he should be pleased.

"I am hitting both sides of the plate so I must be doing something right," he said. "The more I pitch, the better my velocity should get, and as I throw harder, the movement should come back."

Oates sees a difference in Mussina's control as compared to 1992, when he went 18-5 with a 2.54 ERA and finished fourth in AL Cy Young Award voting at the age of 23.

"It's not like it was two years ago," Oates said. "Two years ago, you could have put a Dixie cup behind home plate and he could have dropped it in there. Now you might need a five-gallon pail."

Health has nothing to do with it, Oates insisted.

"He has no problem physically," Oates said. "Everyone can get on a new subject and turn the page. He had all winter to heal. He's fine."

Mussina said his fastball doesn't feel any slower than it usually does in spring training.

"Nobody has told me it looks any different," he said. "But I do think I might be a little behind. The plan for me this year, what steps I was supposed to take to get me to the top of the stairs, was much more gradual than if I was coming off a healthy year.

"In the past I would have been jumping two steps at a time, feeling like Superman, thinking I was indestructible. But I'm not Superman. I'm just like everyone else.

"Injuries jump all over the place and you just get picked out at random. I wish I could have gotten picked out at random to win a lottery, but I got picked out for an injury. It's just part of being an athlete."

Mussina finds comfort in everything but the numbers that include 30 hits allowed in 20 2/3 innings.

"I've never had a setback in the six weeks we've been down here," he said. "I feel better now than I did in February. I felt better in February than I did in December."

Pitching coach Dick Bosman voiced encouragement over Mussina's progress. "Good, sharp velocity," Bosman said. "Good control. He's coming along no problem. The curveball will be the last thing to come around. It always is."

Mussina isn't back to top form yet, but he isn't back to the second half of 1993 either.

"Everybody wants a 2.5 ERA again," he said. "All I want to do is go out there for seven innings and give us a chance to win. . . . I'm sure glad I'm not stretched out on the training table every day, or in Bowie on a rehabilitation assignment."

Mussina's final spring assignment is scheduled for Wednesday night. After that, the next time he faces hitters will be on

Opening Day.

ORIOLES TODAY

Opponent: Texas Rangers

Site: St. Petersburg, Fla.

Time: 1:05 p.m.

TV: None

% Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

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