Mussina's fiery gem ices Yanks Irked to lose shutout, ace restores lead to 7 1/2 in 3-hit, 6-1 O's win

5-run first rocks Rogers

'Crazy things' give N.Y. unearned run in 9th

September 14, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Hounded by a season without give, Mike Mussina took what he could yesterday then calmed himself while his team celebrated its knockout win.

Reversing two days of overmatched pitching, Mussina offered the Orioles a seamless three-hitter that translated into a 6-1 win over the New York Yankees and a virtually insurmountable 7 1/2 -game lead in the American League East. With 17 games remaining, the Orioles' magic number for clinching their first divisional crown in 14 years shrank to 10. Yet for Mussina (14-7), no positive comes without imperfection.

An unearned run in the ninth inning marred what should have been his second shutout this season. The blemish so infuriated him that he waved off a post-game interview with Fox television.

"When you get a chance to shut somebody out, you like to do it," he said. "Some crazy things happened the last inning. It's disappointing."

At least the Orioles didn't keep Mussina waiting on support. They ripped Yankees left-hander Kenny Rogers (6-7) for five first-inning runs, including a pair of two-run homers by Rafael Palmeiro and B. J. Surhoff. Right fielder Jerome Walton homered in the fifth inning for his first since Opening Day 1996.

"This is a big win after getting beat pretty good two or three times in a row," Palmeiro said. "He [Rogers] threw well. I'm glad we got to him early."

A Yankees win would have stirred choke talk. Instead, the Orioles iced a race they took command of last weekend.

"This was a big boost for Moose and everybody else, coming in here and winning. That was a big game. That was huge. That's what we were looking for," catcher Chris Hoiles said of a game that zipped by in 2 hours, 17 minutes.

Mussina, who hadn't won since Aug. 8, struck out nine against only one walk. Rather than live solely on the outside half of the plate, he consistently set up the Yankees by pitching inside early in the count.

"We got out of the habit of going away, away, away. We worked it in and out, up and down," Hoiles said. "When you're throwing 90-95 mph with the breaking ball he had today, it's going to be tough for anyone to deal with."

Drawing comparisons with his near-perfect game against Cleveland on May 30 and his three-hitter against Milwaukee on June 25, Mussina carried a one-hitter into the ninth inning.

He got his win along with his usual dose of irritation. Mussina was irked not only by losing the shutout, but by how it evaporated.

With one out and Rey Sanchez at first, Derek Jeter grounded routinely to second baseman Roberto Alomar, who prepared to take the ball squarely in Sanchez's path. However, Alomar stumbled to his knees, costing him a chance at a double play.

When Sanchez stopped to avoid running into Alomar's tag, the second baseman inexplicably pumped toward first base. When Alomar tried to choke off a throw, the ball slipped from his hands, making everyone safe.

Alomar got up limping and pulling at his injured right groin. However, he finished the inning and took Cal Ripken's throw to second base for the game's last out.

"It's getting much better. That's all I'm going to say today," Alomar said of his injury.

After a flyout, Paul O'Neill spoiled Mussina's shutout with a two-out flare to left. Surhoff dived but took the ball on the short hop.

Typical Mussina.

He had entered with a career 2-7 record in 12 starts against the Yankees, a startling figure for the game's highest-percentage pitcher.

He had lasted only three innings in a 10-3 loss in New York last Sunday when a cut developed on his right index finger. That the injury occurred during the first six-game winless streak of his seven-year career only agitated him more. Mussina dryly classified the drought as "unique."

"Nine out of 10 starts I gave up two runs or less. I won three times. I should've won eight times. I won three times," he recited with biting accuracy. "There's so much you can't control as a starting pitcher, yet your name is next to the win or loss."

Eight times this season Mussina has surrendered two earned runs or fewer and failed to earn a win. Five times an otherwise fail-safe bullpen has bungled a lead behind him (compared with only three times for the rest of the rotation combined).

Mussina struck out 14 without taking a decision in Detroit on July 5. He was pulled with the lead after five innings against Minnesota on Aug. 23 despite striking out 11 through five innings.

"I got nothing I deserved last year," conceded Mussina, who finished 19-11 despite a bloated 4.81 ERA in 1996. "I think it's just the law of averages. I won 19 games last year and should've been nowhere near that. The game balances itself. Sometimes it takes awhile. For me, it seems to be the very next season. I'm sure it's not going to be the last time I go through a stretch and throw well and not get anything."

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