Liner breaks Mussina's nose O's ace also suffers laceration, escapes more serious damage

He never loses consciousness

After exit, O's lose lead, game to Indians, 5-4

May 15, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

More than a game, more than a loss, the Orioles experienced the most hurtful moment of an already trying season during the sixth inning of last night's 5-4 loss to the Cleveland Indians.

It was then that a line drive off the bat of catcher Sandy Alomar caught Mussina just above his right eye, knocking him to the ground and opening a gash that bled profusely onto the infield grass. What appeared grisly, however, was less than critical.

The Orioles' ace suffered a laceration over his right eye, a broken nose and significant swelling. However, doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center performed X-rays that revealed no damage to Mussina's head or right eye. In other words, as bad as it was, the injury could have been far worse. Only an inch or two prevented Mussina from taking the hit flush to his eye.

Mussina was helped from the field with a 4-3 lead, but emergency reliever Arthur Rhodes lost it six pitches later on Travis Fryman's two-run homer to right-center field. Compared to the Mussina incident, the outcome was trivial. However, the linkage between Mussina's injury and the game's reversal was unmistakable.

Mussina was in the midst of a grinder's performance. He clearly lacked his sharpest command, frequently pitching high with little feel for his breaking pitches. Still, he managed the game after falling behind 3-0 on a two-out, two-run single by Kenny Lofton in the second inning and a one-out home run by Jim Thome in the third. Thome's homer came on an 0-2 pitch, an indication that the All-Star was groping for his control.

The Orioles returned Mussina's favor by rallying for three runs in the third inning, as B. J. Surhoff, Rafael Palmeiro and Joe Carter drove in runs. In the fourth, the Orioles took the lead against Indians starter Charles Nagy when Mike Bordick pulled his fifth home run into the left-field stands.

Bordick's shot marked the 16th consecutive game in which the Orioles have homered, one short of the team record, and gave Mussina a 4-3 lead.

Mussina began the sixth inning by retiring his eighth straight hitter, getting Brian Giles to ground to second base. Alomar reached the plate having walked and doubled to right field. After fouling a pitch, he received an outside fastball that he ripped to the mound.

Still in his follow-through, Mussina's only defense was to flinch at the last moment. The ball followed him, ricocheting to the right side of the infield. Mussina collapsed, and most in attendance forgot about the ball.

Filled with 43,039 fans, Camden Yards had rarely been this quiet. Trainer Richie Bancells rushed to Mussina, the right side of his face covered with his blood. Mussina lifted his head briefly from behind his glove to expose the wound's severity.

His teammates rushed to him from every position. Sandy Alomar, visibly affected, walked to the mound and appeared to bend over in prayer.

Mussina lay motionless for several moments as Bancells applied pressure to the area. Mussina's right eyelid appeared split. As Bancells gave assistance, the Orioles' bench remained motionless. Most stared at the floor. First base coach Carlos Bernhardt wept. Men accustomed to the bruises of a hard game could only offer shock.

Mussina eventually walked from the field with assistance from Bancells and never lost consciousness, which was an encouraging sign. He was rushed to the medical center for tests and X-rays.

Without their best pitcher, the Orioles' season would become endangered. But Mussina stands for more than his team's best arm.

In many ways, he represents a veteran team's soul.

His earlier absence this season because of a wart on his right index finger coincided with the Orioles' collapse that followed a 10-2 start. While Mussina was on the disabled list, the rotation labored to a 4-8 record and a 7.84 ERA. Before his loss, the starting pitchers were a combined 9-4 with a 3.50 ERA. Mussina returned May 3 and the staff experienced an immediate turnaround. Entering last night's game, the rotation was 3-1 with a 2.53 ERA since.

The game crumbled quickly behind Mussina. Rhodes was called upon to warm, and was given as much time as necessary to prepare. He lost the lead in six pitches when Fryman crushed his fifth home run for a 5-4 turnaround, as the Indians ended a six-game losing streak.

Before Tuesday night at Minnesota, Rhodes (2-2) owned a 21-4 record the past three seasons. Against the Twins he gave up three runs while getting only two outs and absorbed the loss in a 7-4 decision. Last night's loss gave him half as many in his past two appearances as in his previous 94.

Perhaps numbed by what happened to Mussina, the Orioles fell silent against Nagy and relievers Jose Mesa and Paul Assenmacher. They could not push a runner into scoring position for the next three innings.

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