Having monitored him carefully for three starts, the Orioles now can take the wraps off Mike Mussina. From this point on, his duration in a game should be determined by his effectiveness, not by how many pitches he has thrown.
With good reason, the Orioles have used extreme caution in their handling of Mussina this spring. He's coming off a season that was disrupted by nagging injuries, and his health is of paramount importance to the club.
But sooner or later, the hitters -- not the pitching chart -- will determine when it's time for relief. Predetermined pitch limits often become pacifiers in the handling of a pitching staff.
In his brief career, Mussina has shown an ability to finish the job more than other starting pitchers, who often are restricted by a pitch limit. His durability has been one of his major assets, as important as any one of the half-dozen different pitches he throws.
Yesterday, Mussina used 111 pitches to go 7 2/3 innings. When he passed 100, you could almost hear warning bells, as if that were the magical termination point.
But, other than the closeness of the score, Mussina's third straight win was a routine affair. He pitched to the minimum of three hitters in an inning five times, faced four on two occasions and only once (the first inning) did the Tigers send five men to the plate.
Not very often is Mussina, or any other starter, going to pitch more efficiently than he did yesterday. Check yesterday's box scores and see how many averaged 15 pitches or fewer per inning (Mussina averaged 14). Better yet, check the total number of pitches recorded for each winning team and see how many got the job done with 140 or less.
It's the quality of the pitches, not the quantity, that separates winners from losers. It makes no more sense to remove a pitcher who has thrown effectively for 100 pitches than it does to stay with somebody who's in trouble after 75.
This is not to suggest that Mussina should have -- or could have -- finished yesterday's game. But it does suggest that, under normal circumstances, he might've been the Orioles' best hope for a victory. And this is the time of year, with better weather and fewer days off, when normal circumstances usually arrive.
There has been a lot said, most of it negative, about the 141 pitches Mussina threw last May 16 while striking out 14 in a 3-2 win over the Tigers. But had he pitched a six-hit shutout, and thrown an average of four pitches to each hitter, he would've needed 132 pitches, which hardly seems unreasonable -- or unreachable.
The bottom line is the only people who can tell you for sure if a pitcher has lost it are the ones swinging the bats. And they tend to get their message across with a lot more emphasis than a pitching chart.