This has been a good season for Mike Mussina. No longer is he the pitcher who must throw through walls.
On the cusp of a first division title with the only organization he's ever known, baseball's highest percentage pitcher finds himself enjoying the enviable success that until recently also fatigued him. With rare exception, such as last Saturday's too-short start that briefly put him at odds with manager Davey Johnson, Mussina has rediscovered satisfaction from his craft.
He is still perceived as "a tough guy to crack" by some team members. But Mussina has replaced the admitted isolation of 1996 with this year's comfort zone, an area large enough to include others as well.
Johnson freely calls him "my ace" despite two others on his staff with more wins. Pitching coach Ray Miller, who has overseen 20-game winners for three decades, calls him one of the most intelligent, most gifted pitchers he's ever seen.
Best of all, Mussina again believes for himself.
He is in the midst of his fourth All-Star season, 13-5 with a 3.20 ERA. Mussina's 178 strikeouts are offset by only 46 walks. His gaudy record, the extension of a .691 career winning percentage, could be markedly better if not for five blown saves behind him.
"I feel comfortable in the fact that I can pitch this way almost every time I go out," he says. "The way things went around here last year, I began to question that."
No longer must he throw through walls.
Mussina pitched much of last year in a bad mood. Never before in his precocious career had he struggled, and for the first time a manager characterized some of his outings as "terrible."
For a second straight season he also dealt with a new pitching coach, Pat Dobson, who succeeded Mike Flanagan. Their relationship foundered as Mussina battled inconsistency and self-doubt. A personality clash developed; late in the season, Mussina even shouted at Dobson to leave the mound during a visit.
"I was 19-11. I could've been 11-19 very, very easily," he says. "What happened last year, I just couldn't accept that."
Dobson's dismissal, ordered by owner Peter Angelos, and the subsequent hiring of Miller eased many of the tensions that Mussina had carried. Miller's philosophy of positive reinforcement represented a salve and Mussina was willing to listen when he suggested that the pitcher had left what made him successful.
Before Mussina threw his first pitch of spring training, Miller told him he had noticed his tendency to pitch high in the strike zone, dangerous everywhere but especially so in Camden Yards. It was a reason Mussina was only 9-8 and allowed 22 home runs at home compared to 10-3 with nine home runs on the road last year. As a result, Mussina set a personal high in both strikeouts and frustration.
"Until last year, I never thought that I had a problem with [run-scoring] situations," says Mussina, 28, who this season owns the AL's fifth-best home ERA at 2.82. "But I didn't handle it. I had a problem with it and it brought about some doubts. This year I've been able to accomplish the things I accomplished in previous years. I guess my doubts about my ability have been eliminated at least for a while."
End of 'insulation'
Flanagan, a coach in spring training before picking up broadcast duties, is among those who feel Mussina "insulated" himself during the recent organizational upheaval. Why adopt one coach's pitching philosophy when there was an excellent chance he would be gone the next season?
Miller received the security of a two-year contract plus an option for 1999. He also was approved by Angelos.
"I think there's something to having confidence that a pitching coach is going to be around beyond here and now," says Flanagan. "If you don't, it's only natural for some pitchers, especially an intelligent one like Mike, to be leery."
Mussina's mood has improved this year. He is on speaking terms with his pitching coach. His faith spreads over his entire four-pitch arsenal.
Starters help, too
The revival of Scott Erickson and the presence of veteran Jimmy Key no longer leave Mussina as the staff's singular presence.
"On this team, I don't feel I have to win every single time I go out," Mussina says. "In other years, I haven't felt that way. Last year was obviously one of them."
Outwardly confident, Mussina admits he was bruised by last season's ordeal. He won 19 games for a second consecutive year, but also saw his ERA balloon to 4.81. Pitching poorly with men on base, stopping rallies became a labor, though he struck out 46 more hitters than in any previous season. "I don't think his approach changed as much as his execution did," said catcher Chris Hoiles.
Some who observed him in both seasons say Mussina's technical success in 1997 stems from greater extension, a trait ,, that helps him keep the ball down while adding explosiveness to his fastball and bite to his curveballs.