Mussina puts brakes on skid

`On mission,' O's ace silences Jays, 1-0, to lift rotation, 1-3 club

April 11, 1999|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Orioles manager Ray Miller could tell that Mike Mussina was focused yesterday just by the way he walked into the clubhouse. By the way he sat quietly at his locker amid the usual chatter. By the way he stood in the outfield during batting practice. And, most telling, by the way he blew away Toronto's hitters from the very first pitch.

"He was on a mission," Miller said.

That's because the weight of a young season was on his shoulders.

Intent on settling a shaky rotation and keeping the bullpen from stirring too soon, Mussina blanked the Blue Jays on four hits over seven innings and made a freakish run in the first hold up for a 1-0 victory before 43,700 at Camden Yards.

Each time Mussina's right arm snapped off another pitch, it also shaved a little more fat off the rotation's 10.00 ERA and brought a three-game losing streak closer to its demise. He walked three and struck out seven before turning the shutout over to left-hander Arthur Rhodes, who passed it to closer Mike Timlin in the ninth. Timlin recorded his second save, the other coming on Opening Day when Mussina labored through five innings.

"It was big for the starters, it was big for the club, it was big period," said Mussina, who threw 99 pitches as the Orioles improved to 2-3. "I think half the responsibility of accepting the role as the No. 1 starter is to come to the ballpark on days like this and really focus on what needs to be done. There are days I either have to break up a losing streak or keep a winning streak going. Today my job was to bust up a losing streak.

"It's not just the fact we were losing. We weren't playing very well, especially the starters. We threw the ball so much better in spring training, but that's not the regular season. You have to take it to that next level beyond spring training competition because this is the real thing, and in the first four games I don't think we really made that adjustment.

"We could have been 1-3 and played well and not felt the same way, but I don't think anyone felt we played our best baseball by any means."

Mussina retired the first eight batters before catcher Mike Matheny grounded a two-strike pitch into right field, then escaped a bases-loaded jam in the fourth when Jose Cruz smoked a line drive directly at Albert Belle for the final out.

It was the second of two critical breaks for the Orioles, who have a three-game series in New York looming this week.

In the first inning, Will Clark pushed a two-out single up the middle off Toronto starter Chris Carpenter (0-1). Belle followed with a drive into the right-field corner, and Clark never slowed as he made the turn around third. The relay from second baseman Craig Grebeck easily beat Clark to the plate, but the ball popped loose from Matheny's glove.

Clark appeared to tap the plate with his hand, but said later that he was sitting on it and merely pointing to the ball to make sure umpire Rich Garcia could see it. Initially ruled an RBI triple, the play was changed after the game to a double and an error on Matheny.

"It was a perfect cutoff and relay," Clark said. "The throw had me beat and Matheny had the plate blocked. In the process of sliding home, I got a foot in his glove and knocked the ball out. It's one of those weird things that can happen in a collision."

"I thought he was out," Miller said. "Apparently the ball kicked loose. From the time the throw arrived and the slide, I figured he would probably be out. But that's why I want Sammy [third base coach Sam Perlozzo] to send them all the time, because I would not like to not know."

Clark went 2-for-4, raising his average to .474. Belle, hitting behind him, also doubled leading off the fourth and is batting .500.

"I'm trying to do my job, which is getting on for Albert," Clark said. "I wish Albert would whack the ball out of the yard so I wouldn't have to run so far. I could jog a little bit more."

Because of Carpenter, the Orioles couldn't relax. Making his first start, he allowed six hits and struck out seven in 7 1/3 innings.

Carpenter left after a one-out double by Brady Anderson and a walk to Mike Bordick in the eighth. Left-hander Dan Plesac struck out Clark and walked Belle intentionally. Rich Amaral was announced as a pinch hitter for Harold Baines, and Blue Jays manager Jim Fregosi countered with right-hander Peter Munro, who retired Amaral on a soft liner to first.

"For being the No. 5 starter, it's pretty impressive that he was throwing 95 [mph] with movement, and a hard slider and a hard curveball," Mussina said of Carpenter, who beat the Orioles twice last season. "We were really lucky to scratch out the one run we got. I'm just pleased that we were able to win this game."

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