O's must live with fears for Mussina

April 12, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

Well, that was more like it. Three hits in seven innings. A dazzling 94-pitch effort in the cold. A 9-3 victory over the Texas Rangers.

That was Mike Mussina last night, as good as ever.

The rest of the season?

It depends on the calcium deposit in his right elbow.

Maybe it won't bother Mussina.

Or maybe it will lead to arthroscopic surgery that would sideline him a minimum of four weeks.

No one knows.

"It's just something you get used to," Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller said. "Mike probably has never felt anything like that in his arm before.

"Most of us pitched with something like that for 15 years. It's something that has to be watched. But he realizes it's not a big fear thing."

He realized it coming to the park yesterday. He had thrown well on the side between starts. He was going to be all right.

It's just like Miller said -- Mussina has pitched with this condition before; in fact, pitched with it his entire career.

"I had a picture taken of my elbow in college, and I had 'em then," Mussina said.

"I'm not sure how really serious the situation is. I've pitched for seven-eight years since I saw 'em the first time. I'm not overly concerned.

"Even if it acts up again, it's not something that is going to prevent me from going out there."

That, clearly, is good news for the Orioles, a team that is a strong contender with Mussina, and a borderline club without him.

Catcher Chris Hoiles said his fastball had more life last night, his breaking balls more bite. The Rangers marveled at the improvement in his location.

"If those calcium deposits are bothering him, I'd hate to see when he's healthy," manager Johnny Oates said.

"I've seen him at times when he had better overall stuff, but that was the hardest, sharpest knuckle-curve I've ever seen him have. He threw a very heavy ball."

And the cold weather?

"This could have been the middle of July, but with the stuff he had, it wouldn't have mattered," Mickey Tettleton said. "He dominated us."

L Still, it would be dangerous to pronounce Mussina recovered.

The deposit, located on a tendon connecting the muscle to the bone, could break off and cause Mussina no further problems.

It also could break off and lock up his joint.

Then again, it might not break off at all.

The Orioles would love to get a definitive answer, considering how critical Mussina is to their chances. But for the entire season, they'll be waiting to exhale.

"You don't know how something like that could act up, subside and never come back," manager Davey Johnson said. "But that's what they say could very likely happen."

You've heard of injured players listed "day-to-day."

Mussina is start-to-start.

"I hope not. I don't want to be saying that," Johnson said. "But yeah."

Still, what was it Miller said?

"Anything can go at any time when you're a pitcher."

And what was it Mussina said?

"I can blow out my shoulder next week."

The point is, a pitcher is always on the verge of injury. The Orioles can worry only so much. Mussina has responded well to treatment. And last night he stifled the team that pounded him in his first start.

"I had no reason to be concerned at any time," Mussina said. "That's what you're looking for -- when you can put aside other things, and concentrate on what you're supposed to be doing."

The Rangers aren't nearly as potent without Juan Gonzalez and Will Clark -- they have gone 20 innings without an extra-base hit, an astonishing drought in the rock-'em, sock-'em American League.

Still, this was the Mussina who has compiled the highest winning percentage of any active major-league pitcher, the Mussina the Orioles need to re-sign if they wish to remain an AL East power.

He struck out four, walked just two. He allowed his only run on a double play. And he became the first Orioles starter this season to complete seven innings, finishing with a 1-2-3 seventh and a strikeout of Tettleton.

"I thought he threw the ball a lot better, kept the ball down," Johnson said. "He was a lot sharper, you could tell. The first time out, he had a lot of rust on him. Tonight, he actually got stronger as the game went on."

Mussina got into trouble only once, when the Rangers opened the fourth with back-to-back singles to put men on first and third. Rusty Greer followed with a hard shot up the middle. For an instant, a big inning looked possible.

Enter Roberto Alomar.

The Orioles' wondrous second baseman made a backhand stop, then flipped to Mike Bordick to start a double play. A run scored, but that was it for the Rangers. Mussina struck out Dean Palmer on a slider to end the inning.

"Robbie was all over the field again, even though it seems like he can barely move sometimes," Mussina said.

Mussina, Alomar, Rocky Coppinger -- the Orioles aren't fully healthy, and may never be. But they're 6-2, and last night their ace looked like his old self.

For now, it's OK to exhale.

Pub Date: 4/12/97

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