Orioles: With mixed results in big games, Mike Mussina faces his stiffest test against the Mariners.



SEATTLE -- With his inimitable blend of wit and smugness, Mike Mussina says he doesn't care if he ever wins 20 games in a season. He trivializes questions about the quality of his best performances. Author of a near-perfect game against the Cleveland Indians in May, the Orioles ace recently stared down a broadcast type who breathlessly wanted to know if an August performance was his best.

"Were you at the Cleveland game?" Mussina said, expressionless.

Or, for that matter, how about the June game in Milwaukee when he carried a no-hitter through seven innings?

Or the start after that, when Mussina baffled the Philadelphia Phillies for eight innings on six hits and a walk with nine strikeouts?

Or the stretch from July 18 to Sept. 2 in which Mussina allowed two earned runs or fewer in nine of 10 starts?

None of that matters now. Tonight, the game's highest winning percentage pitcher steps into the realm of Big Games, where he has walked infrequently, with only mixed results.

Mussina has done much with middling teams during his seven-year career. Everyone will be watching tonight when he opens the Division Series against the favored Seattle Mariners. For the Orioles to win, Mussina must do something that has eluded him so far. He must carry his team in a huge matchup.

For a team that hasn't visited the World Series since 1983, they don't come much bigger than tonight against Mariners ace Randy Johnson.

Yesterday, an inquiring mind wondered what it means for him to face Johnson on this stage.

"Does that mean he's taller than me?" Mussina quipped, referring to his 6-foot-10 opposite.

Asked his thoughts on the Orioles' being rated as underdogs tonight and in the series, Mussina replied: "I would perceive us as an underdog. It's a pretty big challenge to face Randy. I won't be able to hear myself think. It's unfortunate, but that's the way it is. Even though we led the league in wins, that's the way it is."

Mussina didn't get a decision in last year's Division Series against the Indians, but took the loss in the Orioles' painful Game 3 defeat to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. The performances came after he unsuccessfully struggled to win one of his last four starts for his 20th win.

"I feel experience is important. I got a couple games in last year, and it's a different feeling," Mussina said.

"I think it's going to be easier to handle the loud crowd and everybody hanging out in the clubhouse. In that respect, it's good to have the experience. Once you get on the field, it's the same game as it's always been."

The Orioles can hardly envision reaching the ALCS without find- ing a way to beat Johnson. To do so, Mussina must come up huge.

"I think it's kind of neat that people are overlooking him, almost like he's not there," said pitching coach Ray Miller. "I've learned that, in those situations, his intensity only increases. He only becomes more determined. I like that."

Mussina faced the Mariners twice this year, beating them with a focused performance May 8, then struggling for no decision 10 days later at the Kingdome, where the Orioles scored two runs in the ninth inning to win, 8-7. The two games illustrated Mussina at his extremes. Both came against Johnson, but the first involved much higher drama.

Johnson entered the May 8 game with 16 consecutive wins, one shy of the American League record. Mussina represented an afterthought.

Mussina's grim game-day countenance is well-known. Teammates and coaches alike give him space. Even Miller says little to him. On that day, Mussina grew even more removed. His focus worked.

During pre-game stretching, Johnson approached Mussina. Not to talk, but to glower over him as the Orioles' starter limbered. The two men never exchanged words, but the message was clear. "He was trying to intimidate Moose," Miller said. "Moose's answer was to turn it up another notch. I think he made his point."

Johnson struck out nine of the first 14 hitters he faced, but was derailed by a 57-minute rain delay in which it barely rained. Johnson eventually was undone by Chris Hoiles' three-run homer in the sixth inning. Mussina made local knowledge work for him, throwing in a Camden Yards basement tunnel during the delay, then returning to shut down the Mariners on five hits and one earned run over seven innings.

He needed only 98 pitches. The Orioles blew open a tight game against the Mariners' bullpen for a 13-3 win. Manager Lou Piniella en- visioned a conspiracy including head groundskeeper Paul Zwaska.

All of this clouds Mussina's remarkable success against the Mariners. He is 8-1 lifetime against them and has confined Ken Griffey to a 4-for-30 career struggle. Still, he is tonight's prohibitive underdog.

It has been awhile since the Orioles played as if every game meant something. Behind Mussina, they have frittered away numerous strong starts because of poor hitting. Unless they re-energize quickly, a 98-win regular season -- the franchise's best since 1983 -- will be seen as largely empty. For Mussina, the task is especially large.

"Anybody vs. Randy is considered an underdog. Do I feel offended by it? There's nothing wrong with being the underdog, nothing wrong with it at all," Mussina said behind a thin smile. "When Randy walks on the field, everybody expects him to win. There's a reason for that. I try to do my job. When nine innings are over, maybe we'll be ahead."

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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