More than ace, Mussina must be a monster

October 01, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

SEATTLE -- Mike Mussina needs to turn into Bob Gibson.

Otherwise, the Orioles won't escape the Division Series.

They've got so much working against them, Las Vegas rates them underdogs even though they finished with the best record in the American League.

A split, that's their goal in Seattle.

But guess what?

A split might not be good enough.

Not with the struggling Jimmy Key pitching Game 3 at Camden Yards. And not with Mussina scheduled to pitch Game 4 on three days' rest, if necessary.

Manager Davey Johnson has not ruled out starting Scott Kamieniecki in Game 4 if the Orioles lead two games to one. Mussina could then pitch Game 5 on normal rest in another showdown with Randy Johnson.

However it turns out, Mussina needs to turn in at least one monster performance, and probably two. The Orioles are in such a difficult position, they can't win without an extraordinary effort from their ace.

How can they lose?

Let us count the ways:

The Kingdome. Opposing players consider it the most intimidating big-game park in baseball. The noise the Orioles will hear the first two games is unlike anything they've ever encountered.

The sudden change in intensity. The Orioles had little incentive down the stretch, struggling to a 13-16 record in September. Now they must turn it on against Johnson's 95-mph fastballs.

The right-handed lineup. This might be the Orioles' biggest concern. The Orioles hit 15 points higher against right-handers than left-handers this season (.273 to .258). The Mariners are starting lefties in each of the first three games.

The Seattle rotation. It's not just Johnson. Jamie Moyer is 4-0 against the Orioles the past two seasons. Moyer and Jeff Fassero were a combined 6-2 in September with a 2.66 ERA.

Randy Myers. The Orioles' bullpen rates a clear edge, but the Mariners give their closer fits. Myers has allowed 15 hits in 5 2/3 innings at the Kingdome the past two years.

The Orioles can argue each of those points. They play well on the road. They might benefit from the mental break. And Armando Benitez and Alan Mills could play huge roles against Seattle's heavily right-handed lineup.

Still, their world revolves around Mussina.

The series won't be over if he doesn't win tonight, but it would make his next start that much more important -- assuming that he even got another start.

A victory, on the other hand, would shift the entire psychology of the series, putting enormous pressure on the Mariners to win Game 2.

As if that's not enough, there's one other thing at stake:

Mussina's reputation.

Few consider him a big-game pitcher.

But he could change that perception forever tonight.

Mussina won several big games this season, pitching two near no-hitters, out-dueling Johnson on May 8, stopping the Yankees Sept. 13. But fairly or not, reputations are made in the postseason.

A year ago, Mussina started Game 3 of both the Cleveland and New York series. The Orioles did not win either game. But the experience he gained should prove invaluable.

For all Greg Maddux has achieved in his career, he was not an immediate success in the postseason. In his first four starts, he was 1-2 with an 8.10 ERA. In his 10 starts since, he's 7-3 with a 2.14 ERA.

"I feel experience is important," Mussina said. "I got a couple of games in last year. It's a different feeling [this time]. "I think it's going to be easier to handle the loud crowd and everybody hanging out in the clubhouse."

There's one other thing that might make it easier: Tonight,

Mussina is an underdog.

"That's when he'll be at his best," said HTS' Mike Flanagan, Mussina's former teammate and pitching coach. "When has he ever walked on a mound and not been the favorite? When? This is it.

"I look for him to do really well. He's always supposed to win. In this situation, he's not. The heat is not on him. The heat is on Johnson. I think he'll enjoy being the underdog."

Mussina said, "There's nothing wrong with being the underdog, nothing at all." He pitched against Johnson twice this season, earning a victory and no-decision. He's 8-1 against Seattle lifetime.

Everything sets up for him tonight.

The Mariners have evolved into a free-swinging team similar to the '96 Orioles. It's no coincidence that both those teams set the major-league home run record. Mussina often is clever enough to exploit such lineups.

He's fresh now, probably fresher than he was last October. Manager Davey Johnson did not use him on three days' rest down the stretch. Mussina pitched almost 20 fewer innings, made three fewer starts.

It might be different in Game 4 -- Mussina is 2-2 with a 5.25 ERA in five career starts on three days' rest. But pitching coach Ray Miller said at this point in the season, the adjustment would be minimal.

Gibson did it in '68.

Orel Hershiser did it in '88.

Johnson did it for the Mariners in '95.

Mussina is slightly built at 6 feet 1 and 185 pounds, but when you're the ace, you develop broad shoulders. To beat Seattle, the Orioles need Mussina to grow in stature. Just this once, they need him to become larger than life.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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