Vintage Mussina stops K.C., 6-1 O's ace returns to form in complete-game win

June 15, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Mike Mussina stood on a bullpen mound at Tiger Stadium four days ago, and in a matter of two or three minutes of adjustments to his delivery, everything seemed right again.

"I can feel the difference," Mussina said, nodding to pitching coach Pat Dobson. Mussina was throwing on a downward plane again, rather than rushing his motion and drifting off to the side as he released the ball.

The adjustment held last night as Mussina broke out of the worst slump of his career, allowing seven hits, one walk and retiring the last 13 hitters in the Orioles' 6-1 victory over Kansas City, the first complete game by an Orioles pitcher since May 7.

"Life," said Orioles manager Davey Johnson, "is beautiful."

Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken played in his 2,216th consecutive game, surpassing the world record of 2,215 set by Japanese legend Sachio Kinugasa. When Ripken's record became official in the bottom of the fifth inning, the crowd at Kauffman Stadium stood and cheered for several minutes, beckoning Ripken out for two curtain calls.

The second time he came out, Ripken made his way through a sea of photographers and cameramen and reached up to shake hands with Kinugasa, who traveled from Japan to witness the two historic games.

Brady Anderson hit his 22nd homer, a career high, and Luis Polonia had a double and a triple for the Orioles.

Mussina (9-3) hit "rock bottom," in Johnson's words, in his start against the Chicago White Sox last Sunday. He allowed nine runs, matching his career high, in only 3 2/3 innings, and his ERA rose to a whopping 5.54.

Detroit pitchers have ERAs like that. "Four-A" pitchers -- minor-league veterans who aren't quite qualified for the major leagues -- have ERAs like that. But Cy Young candidates such as Mussina, 6-2 with a 3.64 ERA after beating Oakland May 14, don't have ERAs near six runs.

He's on his way back down.

"I can't sit here and say my problems are solved," Mussina said. "I've been struggling for a while. If I can pitch very close to this for a few starts or a few months, that will be better."

Mussina's sins on the mound have multiplied over the past month. In Seattle, he lost his temper and berated a rookie umpire over ball-and-strike calls, yelling to the arbiter, as he departed, that he should go back to the minor leagues.

Then Mussina's mechanics, flawless in the past, slowly unraveled from start to start; his major trouble came with runners on base, when he had to work from the stretch.

Mussina, perhaps feeling the need to do a little something extra, trying to throw the ball a little harder, would burst out in his delivery, his front side flying out ahead of his arm. It affected his control, although not dramatically: Mussina had only six walks in his previous five starts before last night.

However, he was wild in the strike zone. A pitch aimed for the outside corner, a favorite location for Mussina in his career, would drift back over the middle of the plate, and batters were teeing off.

The alterations in his Detroit workout helped. They were apparent in the hole he dug with his left foot -- the foot he lands on -- in front of the Kauffman Stadium mound. Mussina landed in that spot over and over and over.

"He used all pitches," said Johnson. "He had a good fastball, a good curveball, a good changeup. . . . That was just a great-pitched ballgame, and we certainly needed it."

There was a difference, too, in his demeanor. Mussina had fallen into the habit of glaring at umpires, or at least shooting them nasty glances, if he didn't get the call. Last night, he carried himself on the mound like reliever Randy Myers -- throwing the ball, catching the throw from the catcher and turning away.

Home plate umpire Ted Barrett appeared to miss a few borderline pitches, nothing out of the ordinary over the course of an entire game, but Mussina said nothing, other than to cordially ask once about the location of a pitch. You could tell, Anderson said later, that Mussina was intent on what he was doing.

He concentrated on shutting down the Royals, changing speeds, mixing pitches. As Mussina usually does.

"I think [the complaining] detracted from my pitching," Mussina said. "It doesn't do me any good. . . . I guess I made up my mind that that stuff that was happening before wasn't very good."

The Royals got a runner to second in the first inning, but he struck out Orioles-killer Craig Paquette with a high fastball. Mussina gave up a bases-empty homer to Mike Macfarlane in the second, but came back in the third to pitch through a one-out double, whiffing Tom Goodwin on a change-up and retiring Keith Lockhart on a grounder to second.

The Royals loaded the bases with two outs in the fourth, with two singles and a walk. But Mussina got David Howard to ground out weakly, and that was the last Kansas City threat.

The Royals were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position; in Mussina's last three starts, plagued by delivery trouble when he had to hold runners, opponents had been 9-for-18 with runners in scoring position.

Mussina breezes. It was a welcome sight for the Orioles, a rare sight -- only the third time since May 9 that a starter allowed one run. Mussina is 9-1 in 16 career starts against the Royals.

For Johnson, for Mussina, for a day, life is beautiful.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Kansas City Royals

Site: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.

Time: 8: 05

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' David Wells (3-6, 5.72) vs. Royals' Chris Haney (4-5, 4.12)

Pub Date: 6/15/96

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