Mussina has cast out last season's demons

June 12, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

BOSTON -- He beat the Royals in Kansas City on Monday night on the first anniversary of The Brawl. "I can't believe you guys didn't bring that up," Mike Mussina said to reporters yesterday, smiling.

Yesterday, on a warm afternoon at Fenway Park, he ghostbusted another poltergeist from 1993, his season to forget.

It was here that he made his last start of last season, in a mid-September game the Orioles had to win. His shoulder hurt. His back ached. His location stunk. The Red Sox whacked him around. The Orioles' pennant hopes were history. Terrible night, terrible memory.

Nine months later, he limited the Sox to three runners in the first eight innings of the Orioles' 5-2 win yesterday.

Bye-bye, ghost.

"I find it very comforting," Mussina said after winning his ninth game of the season, "that I'm back here again throwing like this. That what happened last year is last year. That I'm not still sitting here in this chair trying to figure out what went wrong, or whether or not I'm healthy."

His spate of problems began when he wound up at the bottom of a pile of 50 angry Mariners and Orioles a year ago on the first Sunday in June. He was a sore and mediocre pitcher for the rest of the season. Compensating for the soreness, he wrecked his delivery.

That his shoulder and back were healthy again was evident when he limited the Royals to two hits in eight innings on Opening Day. That he could dominate again was evident when he finished the Orioles' sweep of the Blue Jays last month. That he could suffocate an opponent again was evident yesterday, when the Sox were outclassed until the ninth inning.

"There aren't many holes there," pitching coach Dick Bosman said. "I sure don't see many."

Yet, Mussina insists, he still isn't through climbing back to where he was in 1992 and pre-brawl '93, a span during which he won 26 of 33 decisions.

"I'm still not consistent like I was then," he said. "I'm not as mechanically sound as I'd like to be. It [his mechanical soundness] comes and goes. The more I pitch, the less it goes away. But it still haunts me every few innings."

The Orioles will gladly take the "inconsistent" Mussina, of course. He is probably going to make the All-Star team. He is among the league leaders in wins and earned run average. He has had only two outings that were less than superb, and he won one of them. The Sox couldn't touch him until the ninth inning yesterday. He didn't have a usable curveball, and they still had absolutely no clue.

But Mussina was not impressed. "Not one of my best games this year," he said.

C'mon, really?

"Really," he said. "My best games by far were Opening Day and against the Blue Jays. Everything else, including today, kind of jumbles together. It was good enough, sure. But I can do better."

Is he too hard on himself? Maybe. But he is superior to 99 percent of the pitchers in the major leagues. He is operating on a different plane. He has higher expectations. Comes with the talent.

At 25 years old, he has 45 wins in his pocket and a truly magnificent career at his fingertips. Thus, shaken by the disappointment of '93, he will not proclaim himself fully healed until '94 is over.

"I want to see myself throw 200 innings, start 35 games, pitch like I did in '92," he said. "Until I do that, there are always going to be doubters, including myself, wondering whether I'm healthy and back."

The Red Sox certainly aren't going to wonder anymore. Making contact early in the count again and again, they accomplished so little for eight innings yesterday that the big crowd started clapping for a rally when no one was on base. It's called desperation.

"Mike's location wasn't as good as it can be, but he was changing speeds terrifically," Bosman said.

Chris Sabo was back in left field for the second straight game, but Mussina was so effective that the Orioles could have had Harpo, Groucho and Sabo as their outfielders. Mike Devereaux made a couple of nice running catches in the seventh, but the outfielders were basically out of bounds other than that. Sabo didn't touch the ball until the ninth.

Most fans were gone by the ninth inning, when Mussina finally wobbled and the first two Sox batters reached base. Mussina got the next two out, then got two strikes on Mo Vaughn. He was one strike from a shutout when Vaughn doubled, scoring two runs. Alan Mills came in from the bullpen to get the last out.

"I wanted the shutout," Mussina said. "Giving up a two-out hit on an 0-2 pitch is an example of something I wouldn't have done in '92. That was pretty ugly."

But the rest was just pretty.

"I'll take it," Mussina said, all things considered. "It's a win, right?"

Usually is, pal.

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