Orioles get 1-2 punch, deck Expos

Mussina wins 12th, 9-4

Baines 4-for-5, sets mark for hits

Victory fourth in row

Baines' 20th homer ties Baylor's standard

July 17, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Order returned to the Orioles' universe last night at Camden Yards. Though the team's season no longer offers gravity, it does have its own laws of nature.

Manager Ray Miller will insist the Orioles' write-off from playoff contention is a media fabrication.

Albert Belle, who feeds on fan disapproval, receives his fill.

And Mike Mussina (12-4) can make a 38-51 team resemble its $84 million pay scale. Not only does he suffocate opponents, he has the power to make his offense an unstoppable force.

The Orioles got behind Mussina last night to crush the Montreal Expos, 9-4, before an announced crowd of 41,929. The victory, which also provided two lifetime achievement awards for designated hitter Harold Baines, was never in doubt as the team pushed its win streak to four.

The Orioles might be moribund within the American League East, but they are 9-5 against the National League, the best interleague record within their league.

Mussina, appearing at Camden Yards for only the second time since May 23, reminded locals what they've been missing.

Coming into the game, Mussina had either won, pitched a complete game or had not allowed an earned run in eight of his previous nine starts. If not for a wobbly fifth inning and Miller's itchy trigger finger, he would have hit the trifecta last night.

Baines, at $1.5 million baseball's best offensive bargain this season, added weight to his Hall of Fame credentials by tying and establishing records for home runs and hits by a designated hitter. His four-hit night included a fifth-inning home run, the game's first run and two RBI.

Baines stacked another piece of history atop his season when the 40-year-old All-Star led off the fifth inning with a home run, his 20th. The opposite-field blast was also the 368th of his career and his 219th as a designated hitter, tying him with Don Baylor for the all-time lead.

An inning later, Baines' single would allow him to pass Hal McRae for most career hits (1,556) by a designated hitter. Afterward, Baines cradled two balls, keepsakes to be reflected upon some other time.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't notice. But after tonight you turn the page and play the next game. You're more concerned about wins and losses, not individual stuff," said Baines.

Baines and Mussina are two of several reasons that this season will not be a total loss. Mussina is on pace for his first 20-win season while continuing to lower his ERA. He has 26 strikeouts in three interleague starts covering 21 innings.

Before being removed after 84 pitches and seven innings, he struck out 10 against one walk. In his last eight starts, he has 57 strikeouts against nine walks, a Greg Maddux-like ratio without Maddux's contemporary ERA.

For his fourth straight start, Mussina received at least eight runs of support as the Orioles piled on for 17 hits. Mussina, blessed with two equally effective curveballs, is among the elite who does not have a complement in the foreign league.

"Most of the people like that are in this league," said Expos manager Felipe Alou. "Guys with a big breaking ball -- we don't have too many of those in our league. The league doesn't make the pitcher. It's the other way around: the pitcher makes the league."

"The guys in this league have seen me for 20-25 career at-bats," said Mussina. "I may still be getting them out, but they're getting the ball in play. You really have to make solid pitches. When somebody hasn't seen you, you can get away with a mistake. They might lock up on a hanging breaking ball because they haven't seen you. If you make good pitches, no sweat."

The scope of Mussina's splendid season is understated for several reasons.

He's pitching on a last-place team during a season in which the Cy Young Award has already been ceded to Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez.

Three times Mussina has been undercut by his bullpen and an additional three wins would have him on the same 15-win platform as Martinez, albeit in another strikeout galaxy.

Though fourth in the league in run support, he has twice lost when surrendering two runs. Six times the Orioles have scored three runs or fewer in a Mussina start.

If National League stars Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were baffled by Mussina's five-pitch assortment and dual curveballs during Tuesday's All-Star Game, imagine the helplessness of the game's least productive lineup.

The Expos were held to one hit and one ball out of the infield through four innings. Mussina struck out six through three innings, including the side in the second.

Mussina may have piggybacked his offense in April when he was 3-1 despite a 5.90 ERA, but recovered for monthly ERAs of 3.28 in May and 2.86 in June. He has failed to clear at least seven innings in only three of his last 15 starts and walked more than two only twice in that span.

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