Mussina helps O's start over

Route-going 3-2 win restores momentum to staff, 20-win quest

9-3 ace on pace for 22

Chi. daylight blinds O's

booed Belle HRs

June 19, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- Three starts before, Mike Mussina found himself in a similar situation and stumbled. Yesterday against the Chicago White Sox, manager Ray Miller again allowed his stopper to decide his own fate and was rewarded with a 3-2 win that both extended the Orioles' recent romp and Mussina's well-chronicled pursuit of a 20-win season.

Faced with a jam similar to one that consumed him in Seattle two weeks earlier, Mussina overpowered White Sox third baseman Greg Norton with pitch No. 127 to finish a game he led from his first pitch. The 29-37 Orioles have now won eight of their last nine and are 25-23 since April 25. Given important early home runs yesterday by outfielders B. J. Surhoff and White Sox expatriate Albert Belle, starting pitching remains the underpinning of their recent surge.

"I just think this is what everybody expected of us and what we expected of ourselves," said Mussina, who has won all six home starts but hasn't pitched at Camden Yards since May 23.

Over the last 13 games, the starting rotation is 7-1 with a 2.67 ERA and nine quality starts. Rather than consistently play from behind, the Orioles are now able to score early and hold. Yesterday's two-run first inning gives them a 58-34 advantage in the inning this season. The Orioles have won five times this season when scoring three runs or less, twice in the last three days.

Mussina has won nine of 15 starts, a pace that projects to 22 wins. He has been here before only to still be searching for his first 20-win season.

The only time Mussina got to nine wins more quickly was 1994, when he reached it in his 14th start on June 11. Two other times he has gotten to this point in 15 starts -- July 3, 1992, "when I still didn't know what I was doing" as a rookie, and July 8, 1995, during a strike-shortened season. Mussina's quest for 20 wins has been sabotaged at every turn, either by a strike or by a maladroit bullpen in 1996, when he stalled four times and was left at 19 wins for the second straight season.

This season has been a paradox. Mussina (9-3) leads the American League in run support, averaging 7.91 runs per nine innings pitched. In four of his last five starts he has received a total seven runs; however, he also benefited from the team's record 22-run explosion against Atlanta June 13. Reminded he has been given 29 runs in his last five starts, Mussina countered, "I had three RBIs in my last starts. That's as many as we scored today."

If pitching is about location, then yesterday hitting was all about timing.

By grabbing a 3-0 lead after three innings against White Sox starter Jaime Navarro (5-5), the Orioles were able to use the late afternoon's hitter-hostile conditions to their favor.

Surhoff continued his extraordinary season by virtually duplicating Thursday's performance. His first-inning home run on a two-out chest-high fastball not only gave the Orioles a 1-0 lead but extended his career-high hitting streak to 19 games. Surhoff's 15 home runs are only seven fewer than his career high set last season in 295 more at-bats.

The Orioles bumped the lead to 2-0 when Belle walked, took third on Harold Baines' single and scored on Will Clark's grounder that was bobbled by White Sox shortstop Mike Caruso. Not until there were two outs in the ninth did the White Sox bring the potential go-ahead run to the plate against Mussina.

"I've thrown the ball much better in this 15-game stretch than I have in other years," said Mussina, who dropped his ERA to a season-best 3.64 while only a rain delay in Florida has kept him from going at least seven innings in eight straight starts. "I've got to work toward the next 15 now."

"Mussina is probably one of the top pitchers in the league. We have to be flawless," said White Sox manager Jerry Manuel. "We gave up a run early and he made it really difficult. You have to execute in every facet of the game against a pitcher with that kind of stuff."

Belle took a measure of revenge and the Orioles grabbed a 3-0 lead in the third inning when he slugged his 12th home run into the White Sox bullpen. Booed loudly by the fans he played before the previous two seasons, Belle only heard cheers when Navarro hit him with a pitch in the fifth inning. Belle glowered at the mound but was intercepted by plate umpire Larry McCoy.

Mussina plowed through the White Sox for five innings, allowing only three hits and one runner into scoring position when center fielder Chris Singleton stole second base with two outs.

It wasn't until he held a 3-0 lead in the sixth inning that Mussina was damaged by a mistake. Leaving a pitch too high, he surrendered a two-out bases-empty solo home run to right fielder Magglio Ordonez, who also had homered against Juan Guzman Thursday night.

With the game reaching into rush hour, the infield became shrouded by shadows while the sun peeked from above the Comiskey Park awning. The mix left Surhoff blinded in left field and made it nearly as difficult for Mussina's infielders to find the ball off the bat.

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