Low-key Mussina opens door to victory Lacking best stuff, O's ace stays on typical even keel, goes solid 7 to beat Royals

April 03, 1996|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

For Mike Mussina, the season-opening game at Camden Yards was just another day at the park.

No frills, no fuss, no show of emotion. Just a typical professional job by the 27-year-old right-hander: five hits and four strikeouts scattered over seven innings to stake the Orioles to a 4-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals.

The capacity crowd of 46,818, the media and new manager Davey Johnson, returning to the city where he spent his glory years as a player in the 1960s, may have been hyped up for the 1996 send-off. But not Mussina, the rock of the Orioles' rebuilt pitching staff, who does not allow events or emotions to change his modus operandi.

"I don't find pitching a season opener any more taxing than any other game," said Mussina, who was pitching his third straight opener, each against the same pitcher, Royals ace Kevin Appier.

"I try to stay as much on an even keel as possible. What good would winning the first game be if you lost your next five or six starts?"

Not to worry. In four-plus seasons, the pride of Montoursville, Pa., has compiled a 72-30 record, the highest winning percentage (.706) of any active big-league pitcher, including Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens.

Yesterday's performance was not overpowering, but still vintage Mussina: The Stanford graduate used his head as much as his arm.

"I was struggling with a few things," he said, "But I was pleased with the fact that even though I didn't have my best stuff, I made some big pitches and got my fielders to work for me."

Johnson, restricted in past years to watching Mussina pitch in spring training games, was duly impressed.

"Mike was a pleasure to watch today," the manager said. "He had some trouble locating the plate early, but he got the tough outs when he had to."

Johnson, who has earned the reputation of seldom letting a starter overextend himself on the pitch count, did not hesitate to replace Mussina -- even after he struck out the side in the seventh inning, mesmerizing Keith Lockhart and pinch-hitter Jon Nunnally with curves and changeups.

"He had thrown only 94 pitches, but I believe, even if you're a great pitcher, an Opening Day will drain you," Johnson said.

"And I wasn't going to put him in a position that I might have to hook him in the late innings. And he had pitched too great to wind up with a no-decision. I'm just glad he didn't fight me about it."

Mussina never questioned Johnson's decision.

"It was a good situation to bring in the setup man," he said. "Jesse [Orosco] pitched a strong inning before Randy [Myers] closed them out. Just the way it is supposed to work."

Everything usually works that way when the manager gives the ball to Mussina, who seemingly has been a step ahead of everyone since he started pitching in the Little League.

Bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, who has watched the likes of Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Scott McGregor and Mike Flanagan over the past 27 years, says Mussina has much in common with those former Orioles stars.

"Mike knows exactly what he has to do out there," said Hendricks. "He warms up the same way every day and decides what's going to work for him. He's a perfectionist.

"I hate making comparisons, but the guy he reminds me of the most is Palmer -- his concentration level and the way he recognizes situations and hitting tendencies on different ball-and-strike counts. He just knows how to win, even when he doesn't have his best stuff."

Working with Mussina is a catcher's delight, too.

"He's really in control," said Chris Hoiles, yesterday's starter behind the plate. "He had all four of his pitches -- fastball, slider, curve and knuckle-curve -- working. But he's been like that since his first full season [1992]."

Perhaps Flanagan, the ex-Orioles pitching coach turned television commentator, put it best:

"Mike Mussina is all about winning."

Pub Date: 4/03/96

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