Count on Mussina, but how much?

May 01, 2000|By KEN ROSENTHAL

On May 16, 1993, Orioles right-hander Mike Mussina tied a club record with 14 strikeouts in a 3-2 victory over Detroit. He threw 141 pitches that afternoon and later missed six weeks with a sore shoulder. To this day, no one knows if his injury was caused by the strain of his performance, a brawl three weeks later against Seattle, or some combination of both.

On Saturday, Mussina threw 138 pitches, his most since Sept. 6, 1995, the night Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record. It was a gallant, epic performance, and it evoked memories of a famous line by Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly after Jack Morris' 10-inning victory in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.

What would it have taken to remove Morris from that game?

"A shotgun," Kelly said.

Mussina, 31, doesn't carry the blood-and-guts reputation of Morris, and at 6 feet 2 and 185 pounds, he isn't built like a classic workhorse. But his show of fortitude in Saturday's 3-1 victory over Texas should silence anyone who harbors the ridiculous notion that he doesn't always pitch deep enough into games. Mussina leads the American League with 47 innings pitched, OK?

The question now is how he will respond after such a draining effort, and the Orioles will find out Thursday afternoon when he faces Anaheim's Ken Hill. Manager Mike Hargrove said after yesterday's 8-4 loss to Texas that he does not plan to push Mussina back an extra day so that he could start him Friday in New York against the Yankees.

Scott Erickson will make his 2000 debut in that game, and Hargrove wants him to remain on schedule coming off elbow surgery. But Saturday was only the third time since June 1996 that Mussina has thrown 130 or more pitches. He has reached that total 21 times in his nine-year career.

"I'm not concerned about it," Mussina said. "There are some days that you throw 130 and it takes less out of you than 90."

That wasn't the case in '93, when Mussina overwhelmed a Detroit lineup that included Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Travis Fryman, Cecil Fielder, Kirk Gibson and Mickey Tettleton. But it probably was the case Saturday, against a young Rangers lineup that did not include the traded Juan Gonzalez, the injured Rusty Greer or the hobbling Rafael Palmeiro.

Palmeiro pinch-hit in the ninth, but Mussina pitched around him to face Michael Lamb, a player who then had two career hits, as opposed to Palmeiro's 2,181. The bases were loaded. The count went to 3-1. But Mussina got the fly ball he needed to win the game, and restore order to his season.

"I really don't like to take a pitcher much over 125," Hargrove said. "I believe you run into an area where A) there is a chance to injure him, if not that start, then two weeks down the line and B) you run the risk of taking something out of his next start. But as I said [Saturday], sometimes the benefits outweigh the risks."

The benefits in this case were psychological -- Mussina was winless in his first five starts, primarily due to poor run support. The last thing he needed was for the struggling Orioles' bullpen to blow a game behind him. If that meant he had to throw 55 pitches in the final two innings, overcome questionable ball-strike calls and endure the Orioles' daily fielding misadventures, so be it.

Rangers pitching Dick Bosman sensed Mussina's impatience the previous night, when he spoke with his former Orioles pupil in the outfield.

On one hand, Bosman said he was surprised that Mussina came out for the ninth. On the other hand, Bosman noted, "It was evident he wanted that game really bad."

Like many in baseball, Bosman once expressed uncertainty about Mussina's competitiveness. Such reservations often follow players from Stanford, under the old-school premise that smart guys don't really care. Mussina's private nature and unflappable demeanor only added to the curiosity surrounding him.

And then came the 1997 playoffs.

"Those questions were answered with the games he pitched in the postseason," said Bosman, Mussina's pitching coach with the Orioles from 1992 to '94. "For me, that's when you come of age, when you've got everything on the line, you stay in for the late innings, and you do the things you need to do to help your ballclub win."

Hargrove remembers how dominant Mussina was that October -- he was sitting in the opposing dugout, managing the Cleveland Indians.

Coming off two victories over Randy Johnson in the Division Series, Mussina struck out 15 in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, then returned on three days' rest to pitch eight shutout innings in Game 6.

Now Hargrove is the Orioles' manager, and Mussina is the ace he never had.

"It makes decisions a lot easier," Hargrove said. "You're not on the edge of your seat saying, `Should I take him out or leave him in?' You know that if you leave him in, chances are that he's better than anyone you've got, unless it's one of those games when he's absolutely terrible."

Saturday wasn't one of those games, but Hargrove followed Mussina into the Orioles' clubhouse after the eighth inning and asked, "How do you feel?" Mussina always responds honestly to that question, and his answer sometimes is less than enthusiastic. But this time, he uttered only three words: "I got it."

He had it, all right.

Had it all the way to the end.

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