Mussina gets off to healthy O's start Rusty but reassuring, ace kicks off first win

March 01, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Pitching for "semi-real," Mike Mussina ushered the Orioles into their spring schedule yesterday with a reassuring performance that admittedly lacked polish but featured the more precious commodity, health.

Mussina held the Los Angeles Dodgers scoreless for two eventful innings and designated hitter Harold Baines broke a 2-2 tie with a fourth-inning home run as the Orioles cruised to a 7-5 win at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. The Grapefruit League opener was a pleasant debut for manager Ray Miller, whose biggest concern was playing "about 6,000 people" in a game featuring a season's worth of substitutions.

Thanks to Mussina, the day also furthered the confident feel that has permeated the 2-week-old camp.

"It's still February," reminded Mussina. "I didn't expect too much and I felt about the way I expected. Next time I hope to go out and do better. Sometimes it takes time to get back in the right frame of mind."

His fastball was rusty and sometimes misplaced. But Mussina had enough feel for his breaking pitches that he froze runners in scoring position both innings.

"What I have is working; I just need to make it better," he said.

Mussina's two-inning outing lasted 29 pitches and was his first since his dazzling run last postseason. With four starts he redefined playoff dominance with a 2-0 record and an 0.97 ERA in 29 innings. Mussina struck out 41, a major-league record for a single postseason, against seven walks and confirmed his status as an elite pitcher.

"People expect me to come out the way I pitched in October," Mussina said, fielding the predictable question. "It's just not going to happen. Not today. Not next week. Maybe once in a while."

Mussina will take this set of questions over those that greeted him last spring when he arrived in camp coming off a 19-win season devalued by a 4.81 ERA.

"A year ago I was trying to remember how to throw a pitch," he recalled. "I was coming off a 4.80 [ERA] or whatever it was the year before. I'm trying to prepare as well as I did last year. I got off to a good start, pitched well during the middle of the season even though we had trouble scoring sometimes.

"I'm just interested in staying healthy and getting off to a good start."

Mussina was scratched from last April's Opening Day start because of calcium deposits in his right elbow, a painful condition that didn't require surgery but did throw a scare into the staff ace. The condition eased and Mussina crafted a 15-8 record, including two runs at no-hitters and the best strikeout-to-innings ratio of his seven-year major-league career.

A participant in the Orioles' January throw program at Camden Yards, Mussina entered camp reporting "general" stiffness. Not enough to cause concern but enough to elicit a minor mention from Miller. Yesterday, there were no apparent limitations as he faced six of 10 hitters from the stretch.

Mussina surrendered a leadoff double to Eric Young and walked Mike Piazza in the first inning, got the second inning's first two outs on three pitches then allowed consecutive singles to Jose Vizcaino and Tom Prince. Center fielder Brady Anderson made a sprawling catch of Young's flare to end the threat and Mussina's outing.

A rough outing for Nerio Rodriguez deprived Mussina of a meaningless decision, but Baines restored the Orioles' lead in the bottom of the fourth with a two-run home run to right field against Dodgers reliever Frank Lankford.

The rest was pleasant details.

Second baseman Roberto Alomar went hitless in three at-bats but reported no discomfort following off-season shoulder surgery.

"I felt good; no pain," he said.

Pressed about when he might attempt to bat right-handed, Alomar, who drove the ball in his first right-handed batting practice Thursday, refused to make a prediction. "It might be the next day. It might be the next week. It might be later," he hedged.

The Orioles spread 14 hits among 13 players. In four innings, third baseman Cal Ripken produced the only multi-hit game. They took a 2-0 lead in the second inning against Dodgers starter Darren Dreifort thanks to the small-ball tactics Miller has promised will be more pronounced this season.

Following a line single, Eric Davis stole second, held the base on B. J. Surhoff's scratch hit, then gained third when Ripken produced another infield single. Catcher Chris Hoiles scored Davis and Surhoff with a single to center.

Speaking of his more aggressive base-running approach with Anderson, Alomar and Davis, Miller explained: "It sets the tempo [if] one of those guys can steal second or third early in the game. It's different than when you have to publicize that Brady's ribs hurt and Robby's got a pulled groin and Eric's in the hospital. Then the other team doesn't have to worry about those things."

Then the old pitching coach did something reflexive. Standing to leave, he touched wood. It is that kind of spring.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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