ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Without a word, Mike Mussina made the most powerful statement of his season last night: If he was ever gone, he is back.
And so are his goblins.
Instead of gaining consecutive victories for the first time in this already-frustrating season, Mussina was pulled after seven innings and 91 pitches with a one-run lead and what he later termed "BP elbow" from batting practice in preparation for interleague play.
He then watched the Orioles' bullpen commit its 14th blown save of the season in what ended as a 4-3 loss to the woebegone Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Fred McGriff's two-run eighth-inning homer off Buddy Groom(3-3) turned what might have been the Orioles' sixth consecutive win over the Devil Rays into another punctured hope.
The loss came with a chaotic ending as the umpiring crew reversed an apparent game-ending out call on B.J. Surhoff's ground ball. With two teams off the field, crew chief John Shulock changed the call, saying McGriff had been pulled off first base by the low throw, giving Surhoff first base and touching off a 10-minute argument that included Devil Rays manager Larry Rothschild protesting the game and someone in the home dugout hurl a carton of gum onto the field. Even the laconic Tropicana Field crowd of 13,870 was roused.
Charles Johnson then grounded a single to right field off closer Roberto Hernandez, pushing the tying run to third base.
Hernandez fell behind Brady Anderson, 3-1, then ended the game on consecutive fastballs.
Even after his team's win, Rothschild engaged Shulock in a heated debate along the first base line.
As has become his tradition, Mussina made his claim with silence.
And has also become tradition, the Orioles' bats did the same behind him, failing to take advantage of a reliever-turned-starter and a game-breaking chance in the sixth inning.
The loss was the Orioles' seventh when leading after seven innings, theireighth in a Mussina start and their first in five games this season against the league's worst team.
Mussina, whose record stayed at 2-6, encountered ghosts from the past at every turn. He happened upon Orioles special assignment scout and former pitching coach Bruce Kison in the dugout before the game, shaking his hand without breaking stride. Mussina watched as the Orioles threatened to detonate a 3-1 game in the sixth inning only to see a bases-loaded, one-out situation dissolve when left-handed reliever Mark Guthrie entered to retire left-handed hitters Harold Baines and Surhoff.
Just as Cal Ripken is defined by 2,632, Mussina had become known by 2.9, his average run support per start.
The Orioles, who average 5.18 runs per game, have yet to score more thanfive runs in any of Mussina's 12 starts; six times they've scored three runs or fewer.
This time the trend held against Devil Rays starter Cory Lidle, a reliever pressed into the rotation following last week's release of Dwight Gooden. Lidle was making his fourth career start as the 10th starting pitcher employed this season by the Rays.
The night before, the Orioles had mashed four home runs and nine extra-base hits in their 8-7 win, but against Lidle managed only two singles and 10 batters against the little-known right-hander. It required a combination of managerial aggressiveness, Will Clark's two-out single, a defensive lapse and the most recent in a string of clutch hits by Ripken to give the Orioles a 2-1 lead in the fourth inning.
Mike Bordick led off by beating out a four-hop grounder into the hole at shortstop. Hargrove avoided a crippling double play by running Bordick before Delino DeShields' grounder to short. Following Albert Belle's called strikeout, Clark lined a single to tie the game and took second when right fielder Jose Guillen muffed the roller. The extra base became huge when Ripken singled to left field, allowing Clark to chug home beneath Bubba Trammell's throw.
Ripken's hit-a-game tendency extends for 34 games. He has hit safely in 28 of those games for a total 34 hits and 27 RBIs. He remains second on the club to Bordick in RBIs and is tied with the shortstop in home runs (10).
Given a lead, Mussina cruised, at one point retiring 12 straight hitters. He fought through the sixth inning to emerge with a one-run lead. With Guillen at first base with one out, Mussina thought he had struck out McGriff on a 2-2 pitch but didn't receive the call. McGriff walked on Mussina's next pitch bumping Guillen into scoring position. Vinny Castilla scored the run with his fifth RBI in two nights.
A fly ball short of the center-field warning track advanced both runners but Mussina struck out Mike DiFelice to end the threat.
Having averaged 111 pitches his previous four starts, Mussina left after seven innings, an uncommon show of faith by Hargrove in his bullpen.
Groom immediately walked his first batter, Guillen, who advanced to second on pinch hitter Randy Winn's sacrifice bunt. McGriff then yanked a 1-2 pitch into the right-field bleachers for his 399th career home run, ending Mussina's chance at a win and leaving the bullpen's fingerprints all over the loss.