Mussina gives O's 1st shutout, 6-0 Strikes out 11 Tigers, gives weary mates a lift with 19th win

Bonilla HR caps 4-run 1st

O's gain on Yanks, enter final 3 weeks

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

Mike Mussina drove home at 2: 30 a.m. yesterday morning, exhausted, like the rest of his teammates. The Orioles had an excruciatingly long flight from California on Thursday morning, waited out a rain delay Friday night, then played 12 innings and lost, the final pitch thrown at 2: 13. Demoralizing.

The defeat, the stress placed on the bullpen, the general exhaustion of the Orioles and the reality that there are only three weeks left to play -- given the circumstances, Mussina understood he had to pitch effectively against the Detroit Tigers last night.

He was better than effective: Mussina threw the first shutout of the season for the Orioles, beating Detroit, 6-0, before 47,131 at Camden Yards. Mussina (19-9), pitching his fourth complete game, struck out a season-high 11, and in the first two games of the series against the Tigers, he and David Wells, the Orioles' starter Friday, have struck out 22 and walked one.

Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Bonilla each drove in two runs, Brady Anderson had his 100th RBI, and for the ninth time this year, the Orioles (75-66) are nine games over .500. They have never been 10 games over .500. The Orioles picked up a game on the Yankees in the American League East race, moving to within four of New York, and remained one game behind Chicago in the wild-card race.

The Orioles are at that stage in the season now when even a small losing streak, three games, can finish them, like a stock car driver taking a little too much time in a pit stop with 10 laps to go. The margin for error is growing smaller by the day, but that didn't matter to Mussina last night. He pitched mistake-free.

"Mike was just outstanding from the first pitch," said Orioles manager Davey Johnson.

The Orioles' last shutout came on the final day of the 1995 season, when Mussina shut out the Tigers on two hits. He was never in trouble in that game and never was last night, either.

There were lessons to be learned from Wells' outing Friday night. The Tigers, their lineup loaded with young, free-swinging power hitters who look for fastballs, usually swing at the first pitch and at just about anything within a city block of the strike zone. Mussina, then, threw a lot of off-speed pitches and curveballs, and when he did throw fastballs, he aimed them at the fringes of the strike zone. Rarely did he throw anything over the heart of the plate. ("He usually doesn't," Johnson mused later.)

"It was one of those games when, whenever I threw hittable strikes, they took them," Mussina said. "I dropped a few curveballs in there and they took them. . . . Part of pitching a shutout and throwing a good game is when they guess, they guess wrong."

There were no lottery winners among the Tigers, as they tried to predict for themselves whether Mussina would throw a curveball, fastball or changeup. "By the end of the game," Johnson said, "the hitters didn't know what to look for."

Mussina faced only three batters over the minimum in the first seven innings, needing only 79 pitches, as the Tigers aggressively swung and missed and missed and missed. Mussina didn't throw a called strike from the second inning until the seventh, a span of 14 hitters.

The Tigers didn't have a runner in scoring position until the fourth inning, and when they did hit the ball hard, Mussina's defense intervened. Bill Ripken made a diving stop of a ground ball in the second base hole in the fourth, preventing a no-out, first-and-third situation. Bobby Higginson was robbed again in the seventh, when Brady Anderson raced to the wall and crashed into the fence just after catching the Tiger's long drive.

Detroit's biggest rally came in the eighth, runners at first and second and two out, and Mussina threw two nasty knuckle-curves to Alan Trammell for his ninth strikeout.

"That was the best curveball of the night," said Johnson.

Which? "Both," he replied.

Mussina had the luxury of pitching with a substantial and early lead. Johnson played Pete Incaviglia and Ripken in place of B. J. Surhoff and Roberto Alomar, an effort to stack a right-handed lineup against young Detroit left-hander Justin Thompson, who came in with sterling early reviews: Good fastball, good changeup, terrific poise.

And the Orioles did all they could to tarnish Thompson's reputation. Todd Zeile swung through a straight changeup early in his at-bat in the first inning, but smacked a single over shortstop. Cal Ripken, having seen the Tigers shift their infield defense dramatically to the left Friday night, hit a ground single to right, and Zeile stopped at second.

Thompson tried to run a high-and-inside fastball past Palmeiro, but the Orioles first baseman got his hands up and drove the ball between Curtis Pride and Higginson, the Tigers' left and center fielders. Zeile scored easily and, as Travis Fryman's relay sailed high and away, Ripken sprinted across home standing.

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