Mr. Mussina's pain becomes career gain

April 15, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

DETROIT -- Tony Phillips had just finished talking about Mike Mussina. "By the way, that's Mr. Mussina to me," the Detroit left fielder said. "Not too many people I call 'Mr.' But he's Mr. Mussina, as far as I'm concerned."

Phillips also spoke of "Mr. Clemens" (Roger) and "Mr. Johnson" (Randy), but Mussina didn't throw as hard as either of those pitchers yesterday. Heck, he didn't even throw as hard as the old Mike Mussina.

All he did on this gorgeous spring afternoon was combine his ability and intelligence in a way he never had before. This is the scary thing about Mussina now. He's a better pitcher for getting hurt. Better, because he's even smarter.

He watched batting practice with pitching coach Dick Bosman before yesterday's 3-1 victory, observed the way the wind was blowing, how balls were flying out of Tiger Stadium. Right then, he set his game plan, and announced it to Bosman.

"This is the first time I ever made a statement," Mussina said after finishing with more strikeouts (seven) than base runners (six) in 7 2/3 innings. "Somebody heard me say it, and then I went out and did it.

"He [Bosman] was asking me if I had any questions about these hitters. We talked about a couple of guys, and I said I basically wanted to keep the ball on the ground. I watched what [John] Doherty did to us yesterday. Everything was ground ball, ground ball, ground ball."

So, Mussina decided to rely on his sinking fastball, the better to induce ground outs. Scott Livingstone said the Tigers didn't even know Mussina had a sinker. But in the first five innings, they hit only two balls out of the infield, one a home run by Lou Whitaker.

Afterward, the Tigers weren't as complimentary of Mussina as they were last season, or as they were of Ben McDonald two days before. No question, Mussina was far more dominant in his 14-strikeout game at Tiger Stadium last May 16. But this time, he expended less energy, and got the same results.

Mussina now views the 14-strikeout game as a turning point, "the most educational game I've had." It was the day his injury problems started, a freakish performance not likely to be repeated. Years from now, it might be regarded as the significant outing of his career.

Looking back yesterday, Mussina said he pitched with "no brain," then quickly reconsidered. "It wasn't no brain," he said. "But I gave up home runs, gave up hits and got through. That was just one of those days. Like Clemens striking out 20."

Bosman was even more blunt.

"That was a macho job," he said. "This was a smart game. He pitched today. This is how the good ones hang around and maintain success. You have to be able to adjust and pitch according to the conditions."

And so Mussina did. His velocity is still inconsistent, but he made sure to throw his best fastballs after the Orioles took a 3-1 lead in the fourth. The top pitchers -- the ones you call "Mr." -- recognize the importance of preserving a hard-fought lead.

Mussina retired the Tigers' 3-4-5 hitters in order, striking out Eric Davis and Cecil Fielder, then inducing a weak ground out by Kirk Gibson. His last pitch to Fielder registered 93 mph on the faster of the two radar guns. It was the hardest pitch he threw all day.

Manager Johnny Oates described his control as "perfect," and plate umpire John Hirschbeck said, "He seemed to be putting the ball right where he wanted all the time." Yet, the Tigers seemed dumbfounded. "His fastball isn't the same," Fielder said. "We had chances to get him. We didn't get it done."

"You look at his stuff, it's not that good," Tigers manager Sparky Anderson said. "He's not a fastball pitcher. But every fastball is where he wants it. His curveball is not a curve where you say, 'ooh.' His stuff, to watch him, I don't say, 'ooh.' You 'ooh' at McDonald."

Still, Anderson marveled at Mussina, and how he exploited every Detroit hitter's weakness. Yesterday, he threw Junior Felix a 92-mph fastball, then struck him out on a 68-mph changeup. Whitaker hit his home run off a breaking ball, then didn't see another one all day.

The injuries made him smarter. The injuries made him better. "Sometimes the lessons are painful," Bosman said. "It's like a kid growing up, getting skinned knees and bruises. You'd like to save 'em those skinned knees and bruises. But a lot of times they have to experience them to have a lasting effect. You just hope they don't do too much damage."

Obviously, they didn't. He's the new Mike Mussina, the improved Mike Mussina -- Mr. Mussina to you, buster. "I have no problem with a guy like that beating us," Anderson said with a final shrug. "If he loses pitching like that, it's a crime."

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