Bag those big-game doubts about Mussina

October 06, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

For Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller, the question about Mike Mussina being a big-game pitcher was settled long before the Division Series against Seattle.

Miller said that Mussina is so competitive, it was necessary to adjust the Orioles' September rotation to prevent him from facing Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson in three consecutive starts.

"I knew he would compete against Clemens -- that takes a lot out of you," Miller said. "I didn't think it was fair when we were going to ask to pitch him against Randy Johnson twice, which was inevitable in this series."

So, Nerio Rodriguez beat Clemens on Sept. 23, and Mussina pitched two days later. Clearly, he had plenty left for Johnson and the Mariners -- first in Game 1, and then yesterday in Game 4 on three days' rest.

A certain knuckleheaded columnist suggested three weeks ago that Scott Erickson should pitch Game 1 because he would be more comfortable than Mussina coming back on short rest.

The Orioles could have saved Mussina for Game 1 of the AL Championship Series by doing that, but who's to say they would have won the Division Series? And who's to question the club's logic or Mussina's heart now?

HTS broadcaster Mike Flanagan, Mussina's former teammate and pitching coach, called his 3-1 victory over Seattle yesterday "maybe the best short-rest performance I've seen."

"Believe it or not, he was even better today than he was in the first game -- and he was great in the first game," Seattle right fielder Jay Buhner said.

The belief here was that Mussina needed to turn into Bob Gibson for the Orioles to win the series.

Well, at least we got that one right.

Mussina allowed seven hits in 14 innings against the highest-scoring team in baseball, the team that set the major-league home run record this season.

He held Ken Griffey hitless in six at-bats, preventing the American League home run champion from hitting the ball out of the infield.

And he handed Randy Johnson his first consecutive losses in back-to-back decisions since April 30-May 6, 1994.

Buhner compared him to Roger Clemens. Alex Rodriguez said he pitched like a "four- or five-time Cy Young winner."

Clearly, he reached a different level in this series.

Maintaining the highest active winning percentage in the majors is one thing. Winning postseason games under difficult conditions is another.

The issue is still a sensitive topic with Mussina, who bristled yesterday when asked, "What does the term big-game pitcher mean to you?"

"It doesn't mean anything to me," Mussina snapped. "It means something to you, not to me."

Relax, Mike.

It also means something to your team.

Mussina entered this series with both a spotty postseason record (0-1, 5.27) and spotty record on three days' rest (2-2, 5.25).

Who cares anymore?

Mussina struck out 16 in the two games against Seattle, breaking a record for an Orioles postseason series held by Jim Palmer.

"He's obviously proven to himself that he can win under all kinds of circumstances," Flanagan said. "Most of his great games -- even the near-perfect game this year -- were on five days' rest. He's always done better with more than less."

What changed?

"The situation today was different than other situations," Mussina said. "This is a one-time deal. I'm not going to pitch for a while after this. You've got to let it all hang out. I had only pitched two games in two weeks leading up to this. I wasn't overworked. I thought I was real sharp. I felt stronger than I thought I was going to feel. Shoot, it was 80-something degrees out there in October. It was a nice day to pitch."

But Flanagan said that Mussina also grasped that he could benefit from working on three days' rest. His breaking pitches would be better. So would his control.

His fastball?

"He actually threw harder than Johnson," Flanagan said. "That's something you don't usually associate with three days' rest. But his delivery is so much more fluid.

"Your finesse pitchers usually don't have the fastball. But when they're not thinking of throwing hard, just being smooth, it's usually there. That's why guys in the past liked pitching on three days' rest."

Mussina had everything yesterday -- his fastball and slider, changeup and knuckle curve. He threw 101 pitches in seven innings, and did not allow a hit after the second.

His only mistake was a 1-1 fastball that Edgar Martinez hit for a home run in the second. It was Martinez's second homer of the series off Mussina. But in the sixth, Mussina rebounded from a 3-0 count to strike him out.

"I got two breaking pitches after it was 3-1 in the count. I couldn't believe it. That really makes it tough to hit," Martinez said.

Mussina did not question Johnson's decision to remove him, saying, "We have an awesome bullpen." Johnson and Miller protected their starters all season. Indeed, that might be one reason Mussina was so effective yesterday.

ESPN showed him pumping his fist and clapping his hands after a strikeout by Randy Myers in the ninth inning. The crowd of 48,766 chanted "Moooose" for much of the day, and again during the Orioles' celebration.

It was a salute to an ace.

An artist reaching new heights.

A big-game pitcher.

Pub Date: 10/06/97

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