Without a doubt, the real Mussina makes it count OPENING DAY '94

April 05, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Second inning, men on first and second, none out. Kansas City's Bob Hamelin hits a smash into the first-base hole. In spring training, on a harder field, the ball skips through. But spring training is over. Rafael Palmeiro makes an excellent stop. And Mike Mussina is on his way.

Next batter, men on second and third, one out. Dave Henderson hits a sharp one-hopper to the mound. "A pitcher who doesn't field his position well, one run gets in, maybe two," Kansas City's Brian McRae says. But Mike Mussina stabs the ball, stares the runner back to third, gets the out.

Four pitches later, he strikes out Greg Gagne to preserve the Orioles' 1-0 lead. An inning later, he issues a two-out walk to McRae, then picks him off before throwing a pitch to Wally Joyner. "Luck -- absolute luck," Mussina says. "When I looked over, I didn't expect him to be that far off. I almost fell off the mound."

All day long, good things kept happening to Mussina, but he earned it, don't you think? Earned it after injuries ruined his 1993 season. Earned it after posting a 6.75 ERA in spring training. Earned it with an eight-inning, 91-pitch masterpiece in yesterday's 6-3 victory over Kansas City.

Mussina knew it could have been different -- the Orioles scored their most runs in a home opener since 1982, and the Royals swung so aggressively, he threw only 21 pitches in one three-inning stretch ("We made comfortable outs for him," a disgusted Joyner said.).

A dozen little things can turn the outcome of a game, but Mussina won't remember how everything around him fell into place. What he'll remember is the pop on his fastball, the two measly hits he allowed in eight innings, the 14 consecutive batters he retired after Macfarlane's home run in the fourth.

"The whole spring I was improving," Mussina said. "I threw the ball harder and harder, longer and longer. Eventually, I had enough behind me to know I was healthy. Today helped to reassure myself and a lot of other people that I do feel good."

In truth, several Orioles suspected Mussina had this in him, but who could be sure? Opponents batted .354 off him in spring training. He allowed home runs in each of his last four starts. And 80 pitches was the most he had thrown in any one appearance.

Before yesterday's game, Orioles manager Johnny Oates said, "If I can get seven innings out of him, I'd be tickled to death." Well, Oates got eight innings. Afterward, he was ecstatic. "The way Mike pitched today has got to be exciting for the whole organization," he said.

Exciting, but to those in the Orioles' clubhouse, not all that surprising. On a day when the Royals' Kevin Appier threw 97 pitches in five innings, a day when Boston's Roger Clemens got bombed at Fenway Park, Mussina made spring training look as meaningful as the regular season in college basketball.

"When you can play, you can play, man," outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds said. "What's spring training? All it is is getting yourself ready. When the bell rings, it's time to step up. Personally, I wasn't surprised. He's not a two-time All-Star by accident. He wasn't just going to disappear on us."

Still, as Ben McDonald said, "I didn't expect him to be this good." Never mind that the Royals were the lowest-scoring team in the American League last season. Orioles relievers Jim Poole and Alan Mills allowed more hits in the ninth inning (three) than Mussina did in the first eight.

"He can rise," pitching coach Dick Bosman said. "He can react to the occasion. I expected him to be able to turn it up a notch. What was spring training all about? Preparing for this. The numbers didn't mean anything. What meant something was the quality."

Yet, even Mussina expressed self-doubt in spring training. But on March 10, after facing the New York Yankees in Fort Lauderdale, he told Oates it was the best he had felt in eight months. "That was all I needed to hear," Oates said. "After that, all I had to do was sit back and be patient."

He was healthy, that was the main thing. And if you looked closely enough, you could see yesterday taking shape. Last Wednesday, in his final, discouraging outing against the Chicago White Sox, Mussina twice struck out old nemesis Frank Thomas. His good fastball was coming. That much was obvious.

"I never had any doubt that I could pitch well," Mussina said. "But I was a little anxious to get there. Because I felt good, I thought I could paint on the corners, make good pitches all the time. Naively, I believed that.

"That's not the way it happens. Coming off an injury, things change a little bit. Your mechanics change. You have to teach yourself to throw the way you did before. It's not an overnight thing. I know that now."

He's not going to be like this every start, but if he did it once, he can do it again. His fastball was clocked in the upper 80s and low 90s early in yesterday's game, and still was in the upper 80s in the late innings. But Mussina said he didn't throw as well as he did in '92 and early '93.

Indeed, the best is yet to come. Mussina knows that now. So do his teammates and coaches. "I'll sleep a little bit better tonight," Bosman said, visibly excited, visibly relieved, speaking on behalf of an entire team, an entire city.

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