Mussina has no hang-ups after another close call

August 05, 1998|By John Eisenberg

Four outs to go. Four outs from perfection. Cheers for every strike. Ovations for every out. All eyes on you.

Mike Mussina had been there before. He had stood within two outs of a perfect game a year ago before the Indians' Sandy Alomar lined a double to left. Who could forget that night?

Now he was back there again last night at Camden Yards, back almost all the way to the same, crazy place.

This time, he needed four outs. This time, he had retired 23 straight Tigers.

Camden Yards was rocking. The house was full, the noise coming in waves. The Tigers were flailing at Mussina's pitches, losing the fight more miserably with each inning. You had the feeling it was going to happen this time.

Up to the plate stepped Frank Catalanotto, an obscure, 24-year-old reserve infielder. Frank who? Squatting behind the plate, Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles called for a fastball. Mussina nodded, wound up and threw.

"It was the pitch I wanted to throw," he said later, "and I threw it where I wanted. I wanted to cut it in on him a little, and I did. He just hit it."

Hit it hard. On a line. Down the right-field line.

As the ball landed on the grass and bounced into the corner, Catalanotto sped to second base and Mussina showed the slightest trace of emotion for the only time all night.

He winced with disappointment ever so slightly, and almost too quickly to see.

It was official: another near-miss.

Another flirt with perfection, but only a flirt.

After he'd wrapped up the two-hit shutout -- he allowed a single in the ninth -- someone asked if he was disappointed to come so close again.

"How could I be disappointed?" Mussina said. "I threw a two-hit shutout."

But the bid for a perfect game?

"A lot of lucky things have to happen," he said. "And I was lucky to get that far in the first place."

No argument there. The Orioles' defense saved him several times in the early innings. Roberto Alomar leaped to catch a liner in the first. Brady Anderson retreated to the fence, leaped and caught a fly ball in the second. Cal Ripken made a brilliant, diving play in the third.

"They were diving all over the place behind me," Mussina said. "It could have been over a lot earlier than it was."

But it wasn't. And then he started to roll. Suddenly, it was last October all over again. All his pitches were working. His control was sharp. He mixed speeds, pitches, locations, you name it. It was blinding stuff. The Tigers started to flail. The moment started to build.

Behind the plate, umpire John Hirschbeck was generous with his strike zone. Very generous. And no one was more aware than Mussina.

"It's not something new," he said. "I think everyone in the league knows it. His [Hirschbeck's] is a pretty liberal strike zone. If he's behind the plate, you pretty much know going in what you're going to get. I was throwing it where he was calling it."

The Tigers complained. Manager Buddy Bell was ejected. Two of his players were ejected. The strike zone never shrank.

After five innings, Mussina realized he was headed back to that crazy place again. Back toward perfection.

"I started thinking, 'This is happening again,' " he said. "It was a different [opponent] and I had different stuff. But the result was the same."

Little was said to him. There wasn't a chance. Between innings, he left the dugout and retreated to the clubhouse to sit in the air conditioning.

"It gets warm here, you know," he said.

One time, a clubhouse attendant was vacuuming the carpet when he came in.

"He [the attendant] packed up and left," Mussina said. "He was scared."

Tony Clark struck out to start the eighth. Five outs to go. When the count on the next hitter, Luis Gonzalez, reached 2-2, Gonzalez was ejected for arguing about the strike zone. A pinch hitter, Trey Beamon, swung at the first pitch and lobbed a dangerous pop to shallow left field.

Anderson wasn't going to reach it. Neither was shortstop Mike Bordick. You could hear the crowd inhale. When left fielder B. J. Surhoff came roaring in and grabbed it, the crowd responded with its loudest cheer yet.

Four outs to go. And now you really had the feeling it was going to happen.

"It's hard to describe what's going on there, it really is," Mussina said. "I'm just trying to pitch. They're cheering every strike. Cheering every ball hit on the ground. Every out. It's just fun, that's what it is. I wish every game was like that."

Four outs to go. And then Catalanotto smacked the first pitch down the line. Sorry.

But if you were expecting disappointment from Mussina, you're going to have to wait.

"Last time, I got 25 in a row out," Mussina said. "This time, I got 23 in a row. It was fun. You have to be lucky to get into that situation. To be disappointed about it, I think, is the wrong way to look at it. The way I see it, I'm just real fortunate."

Pub Date: 8/05/98

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