Rested Mussina wrests control

July 09, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Mike Mussina has struggled only once in his brief but spectacular career -- when he refused to acknowledge an injury.

Now that Mussina can identify the first signs of arm trouble, then take the proper steps to avert it, what's going to stop him?

It's a valid question after what Mussina accomplished in last night's 13-3 win over Oakland, allowing only one run in seven innings.

He finished with eight strikeouts and one walk, and might have pitched shutout ball had right fielder Chris Sabo not misplayed Mike Bordick's fly ball into a triple in the fifth inning.

Evidently, he's not injured.

Indeed, when Mussina asked manager Johnny Oates for extra rest between starts after experiencing three straight days of muscle soreness, it was a sign of a pitcher in total control.

Mussina waited too long to address a shoulder problem last season, and the Orioles waited too long to shut him down. He wound up missing six weeks, and the club finished third.

This time, Oates obliged by pushing him back two days, and the results were almost predictable. When Mussina pitches on five or more days' rest, he's even better than his normal All-Star self.

How does 18-4 with a 2.70 ERA grab you?

Mussina, 25, can't always pitch on extra rest, not when he's the ace of the staff. But once in a while -- when he's tired, or when he's sore -- it's obviously a good idea.

"He's not the biggest guy in the world, and his heart is a couple of sizes too big," said Mike Flanagan of his 6-foot-2, 185-pound former Orioles teammate.

"That heart pushes that body farther than it should. He can become one of the all-time great pitchers. My only fear is he'll go too far."

Flanagan isn't overstating the case -- Mussina now has the best winning percentage among active pitchers -- he's 49-20 (.710) lifetime, ahead of Juan Guzman at 47-20 (.701).

The challenge will be staying healthy. Mussina is so competitive, he not only wants the ball every fifth day, he wants to pitch all nine innings.

His injuries taught him a lesson -- taught him he wasn't Superman. One day, the '93 season might be recognized as the turning point of his career.

"I would say I'm more aware of whether I'm healthy or if I'm headed in a direction that might not be in my best interests as far as health," Mussina said.

"I'd have been able to pitch [against Seattle on Wednesday]. But there was no reason to do that. I might have hurt myself, or made it worse."

Oates agreed, and said he would like to give Mussina and Ben McDonald an occasional extra day between starts after the All-Star break.

Now it appears that won't be possible.

Instead, Oates has scheduled Mussina to pitch the third game after the break, giving him a comfortable three-day recovery period if he pitches in the All-Star Game.

"We sat down and thought, Mike has to pitch one inning this year," Oates said yesterday, smiling.

Whatever, Oates has plotted his rotation through Aug. 16, the speculated strike date. The Orioles are off only once in the first 32 days after the break, and twice in the first 46.

By then, it will be almost September.

"We might even go every fourth day then," McDonald said. "It depends on how it goes."

Oates said he doubts he would squeeze additional starts out of his top two pitchers, except perhaps in the final week of the season.

Then again, he's not going to baby anyone, either. Mussina will have to speak up -- just as he did

this week, just as he should have done last season.

"I wasn't aware of what it was leading to," Mussina said. "The more fatigued you get, the easier it is to become injured. Instead of getting close to that point, I was trying to eliminate it early."

Roger Clemens twice pitched with an extra day's rest in June. McDonald, faced with nagging elbow and groin problems, concedes that such a break might have benefited him as well.

This isn't American Gladiators.

It's a 162-game marathon, a test of survival as much as skill.

"With more experience, you know your limitations," Oates said. "As a young kid, how do you know when a red flag goes up? Your answer is to throw harder."

Now Mike Mussina is experienced.

The best might be yet to come.

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