Mussina wins 18th, blanking Jays, 5-0 Ace is steady anchor in O's up, down year

September 27, 1995|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

TORONTO -- Mike Mussina wants to be the best there is, pitching coach Mike Flanagan said by way of explanation. The Orioles faded around him this year, and he's kept on winning.

They started slowly and he won. They surged in July and he led the way. The Orioles died in August and he took over the league lead in victories. They were eliminated early this month, and he's rolled along unaffected, the way everybody should be and very few actually are.

Mussina pitched his third shutout and picked up his 18th victory of the year -- matching a career high -- as the Orioles beat Toronto, 5-0, last night before 35,414 at SkyDome.

"He's been the one constant in our whole pitching staff this year," said manager Phil Regan.

And Mussina consistently thumps the Blue Jays, a great fastball-hitting team that cannot get a read on his changeup. Call it the Curse of Cito. Over the last two years, Mussina is 5-0 against the Blue Jays in five starts, and he's allowed just three runs and 26 hits in 43 innings. That's an 0.63 ERA.

In another year, in a better year for the Orioles, Mussina would be a front-runner for the Cy Young Award. He leads the league with 18 victories, and ranks in the top 10 in innings, complete games, strikeouts and ERA. He's tied with Randy Johnson for the lead in shutouts.

All of it compiled in a year when it would've been easy for him to lose his concentration.

"He doesn't let things he can't control bother him," said Flanagan. "He goes out there with the same determination every time."

Third baseman Bobby Bonilla, who extended his hitting streak to 16 games, said, "You can tell he sets goals for himself. He probably won't admit that, but it helps keep him in focus."

What Mussina will admit is that getting off to a so-so start this year actually helped him.

"They're so many things you learn when you go through a tough time, when you struggle," Mussina said. "I learned a lot about pitching, about myself and about competing. I always knew I could get back to the level I had in me. I knew it when I was 5-5. What surprised me is that it turned around so fast and I was so consistent."

In addition to his consistency, Mussina had some of his best stuff of the season last night. Flanagan saw, as Mussina warmed up, that he had a great fastball. Maybe his best, Flanagan thought, since he was throwing in the mid-90s against New York in August.

Pitching with a 2-0 lead in the second inning, he got out of a jam by starting a double play. He got out of another little mess in the fourth, escaping when he got Ed Sprague to pop out to second. In all, the Blue Jays were 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.

About the fifth inning, Flanagan began to notice Mussina's fastball slowing down, from about 92 mph to 88 mph. But Mussina, as if by instinct, began to throw more curveballs and changeups, getting by with less. "He has a great sense for pitching," Flanagan said. "He knew he needed to get some quick outs to save himself."

The Orioles' defense saved him in the seventh. With one out, Mussina tipped a hard grounder up the middle by Shawn Green. Behind second, Cal Ripken gloved it, whirled and fired to first. Out. Second baseman Jeff Huson, on the very next hitter, moved toward second, backhanded a roller and gunned to first. Out. Bonilla made a nice play on a chopper in the ninth, and Brady Anderson raced in to catch a looper at game's end. Mussina pumped his fist.

Bonilla had extended his hitting streak and the Orioles' lead simultaneously in the seventh. The inning started when Huson rammed a double down the left-field line.

Mark Smith, too, mashed a double, off the wall in left-center field, and Huson scored, giving the Orioles a 3-0 lead.

Rookie Curtis Goodwin, the next hitter, was given the bunt sign by third base coach Steve Boros. Goodwin looked as if he was going to swing and took ball one.

Boros called Goodwin down the third base line and, in private conference, he told Goodwin the bunt sign, then gave it to him. The rookie swung, fouling a pitch off; Boros, with both hands on his head -- ulp! -- called Goodwin over again, and again told him to drop a bunt.

This time Goodwin did square, bunted the ball toward the backstop, where catcher Sandy Martinez made a sliding catch. Ulp.

But with two outs, Bonilla pulled a looping line drive down the right-field line. Smith scored easily, and with Boros waving his arm furiously, Anderson (who had walked) beat Green's long throw.

For the 16th consecutive game, Bonilla had at least one hit. Since joining the Orioles at the end of July, Bonilla has 10 homers and 42 RBIs in 57 games. That pace translates to 28 homers and 119 RBIs over a 162-game season.

Huson, who had only five extra-base hits before doubling twice last night, jump-started the Orioles in the second inning with a long double to right-center, driving home Harold Baines from first.

With two outs, Anderson whacked a single to center and Huson scored, giving Mussina and the Orioles a 2-0 lead. With Mussina so locked in, as he has been all season, that was plenty.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays

Site: SkyDome, Toronto

Time: 7:35

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Scott Erickson (12-10, 5.04) vs. Blue Jays' Paul Menhart (1-3, 4.83)

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