Chicago rips 'rock bottom' Mussina, 12-9 Slumping Orioles ace yields 9 runs in 3 2/3 , losing a 4-run lead

Johnson, pitcher mystified

Alomar streak ends

June 10, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Check the AL East standings. New York in first place with a two-game lead, the Orioles near the top. All a mirage to manager Davey Johnson.

"As far as I'm concerned we're lucky to be playing five or six games over .500," Johnson said yesterday, after the Chicago White Sox completed a three-game sweep of the Orioles with a 12-9 victory and ended Roberto Alomar's hitting streak at 22 games. "We should be in last place, much less first place."

The Orioles bullied the Detroit Tigers last week, sweeping three games. The Orioles got clutch hits. They made big plays. Then the White Sox rolled into town and the Orioles rolled over, and Johnson does not understand.

He cannot comprehend why Mike Mussina, who blew a four-run lead yesterday in the worst start of his career, has gone from being so good to so bad. He does not understand why, in general, the Orioles' starting pitching is lousy, or why his team, with so many smart players, can do so many dumb things.

Match them up against the AL lambs, teams under .500, and the Orioles feast. Twenty-five wins, nine losses, the type of success that merits the printing of playoff tickets in August.

Match them up against the AL wolves, teams over .500, and the Orioles play like the lambs. Seven wins, 17 losses, the type of failure rarely seen outside of Tiger Stadium. No wonder Johnson doesn't think the Orioles are as good as their record (32-26). No wonder he's at a loss for words about the starting pitching, which has a collective 6.69 ERA since April 17.

"There's quality there," Johnson said, alluding to Mussina, David Wells, Scott Erickson and Kent Mercker, who all have had past success. "I don't know. I don't understand."

Mussina threw the ball extremely well warming up, and for two innings, he dominated the White Sox. All of his pitches down in the strike zone, the Chicago hitters chasing balls out of the zone, a good curve and changeup. He allowed a single, struck out three and got two ground balls. The Mussina that everyone expects to see, including Mussina.

Incredibly, he would not last through the fourth inning. Opening the third, Mussina allowed back-to-back doubles to Chicago's No. 8 and No. 9 hitters, Norberto Martin and Ozzie Guillen. Mussina battled Frank Thomas, who entered the game with a .552 average against the Orioles ace, nearly striking him out on a disputed low fastball before Thomas hit a slow single to the left side, driving in Chicago's second run.

Mussina had harsh words for home plate umpire Durwood Merrill as he came off the field in the third, and in the fourth, the White Sox bombed him. With a runner on first and nobody out, catcher Chris Hoiles called for a fastball to Danny Tartabull and set up outside. Mussina threw a fastball that tailed inside -- the one place, Johnson said later, where you cannot pitch Tartabull -- and the White Sox right fielder hit a two-run shot. The Orioles' 6-2 lead was down to 6-4.

Mussina got a second out when Guillen popped to third, but his pitches gradually came up in the strike zone and the White Sox got four straight hits, the last a double by Robin Ventura. Mussina waited for Johnson to finish his death march to the mound to relieve him, standing in silence.

After Chicago added a couple of more hits against Arthur Rhodes, Mussina was charged with nine runs in 3 2/3 innings. He has a 6.82 ERA in his last 11 starts, and Mussina doesn't understand either.

"It keeps happening over and over again," said Mussina, who despite his ineffectiveness is 8-3 after his first loss since April 23. "I don't know what to compare it to. I've never had a situation like this, when I'm consistently poor. I've had situations when I've been up and down, but not consistently bad."

Staying positive is a challenge now. "I pitch a game," Mussina said, explaining the spiral he is in, "and I don't do well. I prepare for my next game, I feel like I do a couple of things that will help, and I have the same below-average results.

"I can't keep doing that over and over. It's tough to take. I have to find a way to get through that."

Johnson said: "I think maybe we've hit rock bottom, and I think maybe Moose would agree with that."

Before yesterday's start, Orioles pitching coach Pat Dobson talked to Mussina about keeping the ball down in the strike zone more consistently, and he did so. But as he fell into trouble, he threw more tentatively, he lost his command and he made mistakes. The first two innings, he said, "were normal. I can't explain it."

Johnson said: "If our starters could keep us in more ballgames, we would win a few more. . . . If you look at our starting pitching, our pitchers rated against other teams', we're probably last."

Or next to last, anyway. Thank heaven for the Tigers.

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