Early heater helps Mussina burn Twins 'Midseason' fastball spurs Orioles ace to his second win, 4-2

He takes 3-hitter into 7th

Great pitching covers cool bats in 5-1 start

April 08, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS -- Mike Mussina's really good fastball, the one capable of making good hitters ineffective, doesn't usually arrive until late June or early July, when he fully regains his arm strength from the off-season.

Until then, he gets by on his good fastball -- not his really good fastball -- and his knuckle curve, his changeup, his knowledge and his control, and does quite well, thank you. That other stuff he has just about every time he pitches.

So the Minnesota Twins were in serious trouble yesterday, when Mussina's really good fastball made an unscheduled appearance early in April. Mixing this with a hard-biting curveball and extraordinary command, he stifled the Twins in the Orioles' 4-2 victory.

"Unbelievable," manager Davey Johnson said. He was referring to Mussina, who threw 79 of his 107 pitches for strikes and didn't reach a three-ball count until the seventh inning.

But Johnson may well have been talking about the first-week performance of the Orioles, who are 5-1 and getting contributions from a lot of folks. Roberto Alomar, Bobby Bonilla and Rafael Palmeiro drove in single runs in the final three innings, and Randy Myers pitched the ninth inning for his fourth save in six days.

"We're winning," said Palmeiro, "and we're not even swinging the bats very well right now."

That's correct. Palmeiro broke a streak of 14 straight hitless at-bats yesterday, Brady Anderson is hitting .174 and Chris Hoiles is batting .118. The Orioles, however, are getting great pitching. The bullpen hasn't surrendered an earned run, and in five of the Orioles' first six games, the starter has thrown at least six innings.

Mussina threw eight yesterday, eight masterful innings, allowing one walk and seven hits. "I think we're going to see that all year," said Johnson. "You know, one pitcher like that makes the rest of the staff better. Everybody sees him pitch and watches him work and says, 'How does he do that? I can do that.' "

Palmeiro said: "I think he'll win the Cy Young Award this year."

Mussina will be a formidable candidate if he maintains his really good fastball all year. He and catcher Chris Hoiles recognized early in yesterday's game that his fastball had unusual velocity and movement. It was, Mussina said later, a "midseason fastball."

Hoiles said: "I think playing indoors had a lot to do with it, because it was warm. He had a great fastball and a great breaking ball, too."

Good enough that Mussina and Hoiles basically stuck with those two pitches, not bothering to establish Mussina's changeup. The Twins had three hits in the first six innings, all singles. He struck out eight in all, at least one in seven different innings.

"He throws a lot of strikes," said Alomar. "David Cone is the same way -- he makes people hit the ball, and that makes it really good to play behind him.

"He's just really smart. He's always pitching hitters differently, throwing them different pitches in different locations. He never throws the same thing on the first pitch."

Mussina threw with few patterns against the Twins, other than good patterns: first-pitch strikes and two-strike curveballs, as he tried finishing off hitters.

Even when the Twins scored, Mussina was pretty good. The Orioles led 2-0 in the bottom of the seventh, and Mussina moved quickly ahead of Paul Molitor no balls and two strikes. He threw a sinking fastball so far down, Hoiles said, he thought he was going to catch it off his shins, on a bounce.

Molitor, however, lifted the low pitch into the left-field stands, cutting the Orioles' lead in half.

Bonilla hit a bases-empty homer leading off the eighth inning and restored the Orioles' two-run lead. In the bottom of the eighth, Mussina was approaching 100 pitches, but nobody was warming up in the bullpen.

Pat Meares doubled with one out and advanced to third when Chuck Knoblauch grounded out to second. Matt Lawton pulled a grounder to the right side, Palmeiro gloved it but fumbled it momentarily getting it out of the glove before flipping the ball to first.

Mussina's timing was thrown off by the error, and when he caught Palmeiro's throw, he was off the bag. Safe, with Meares scoring.

The left-handed-hitting Greg Myers was next. Knowing that Johnson probably would bring in Randy Myers to pitch the ninth, Mussina really cut loose, firing high fastballs.

He threw the first one high in the strike zone, and Myers swung and missed. He threw the next one even higher and the next even higher than that one, and Myers kept on swinging and missing, Mussina's eighth strikeout.

"He really knows how to pitch," said Alomar.

Mussina, like most of the Orioles pitchers, was helped by the presence of Alomar, who caught a grounder in the second inning and flipped it from his glove to Cal Ripken to start a double play.

In the seventh, Alomar made a diving stop to his left, snaring the ball in the webbing of his glove, rising and throwing out Myers.

"That was huge," said Mussina, "because I had one run in and I would've had another runner on."

With nobody out. Not that it mattered, though: The Minnesota Twins are not going to beat Mike Mussina and his really, really good fastball.

Pub Date: 4/08/96

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