Already in mound of trouble, O's can't afford Mussina exit

July 07, 2000|By John Eisenberg

NEW YORK - At the end of a day when the Orioles can't hold a seven-run lead for even half an inning, there's only one question to ask:

Who are they kidding with their attempt to play hardball with Mike Mussina in his contract negotiations?

This is a team without pitching, at least not nearly enough to win. The Orioles have one of the most hittable staffs in baseball. You can look it up.

That they're actually trying to haggle with Mussina, one of the best pitchers in the game, is a joke.

They can't afford to lose him. But he can afford to lose them.

With his contract expiring after this season and discussions about a new deal ongoing since last year, let there be no doubt about which side has the leverage.

That was as clear as the blue sky above Yankee Stadium yesterday as a 7-0 lead degenerated into a 13-9 loss for the Orioles, sending their staff ERA soaring to 5.75, almost the highest in the major leagues.

Sidney Ponson, one of the cornerstones of the future rotation, was the primary culprit.

Equally guilty was Jason Johnson, who was penciled in as the No. 3 starter for 2000 before blowing up in spring training.

Johnson took the loss to fall to 0-8, which is why Jose Mercedes, signed as a minor-league free agent last winter, is back in the rotation, scheduled to start tomorrow against the Philadelphia Phillies.

It's time for a reality check, folks. This is the year of bad pitching in the major leagues, and the Orioles are carrying the torch.

They're ranked last in the AL in shutouts and saves, and only one team in the majors, the Kansas City Royals, has a higher ERA.

And they want us to believe they can survive and even prosper without Mussina?


Mussina has pitched well enough to be an All-Star this year, ranking among the league leaders in ERA, innings and strikeouts going into his latest start tonight in Philadelphia. A gross lack of run support is the only reason he's 5-7 instead of 10-3 and headed to Atlanta as a no-brainer All-Star selection.

If you take away the dose of stability he provides almost every fifth day, the Orioles' rotation would require an R rating.

Yesterday's matinee performance certainly wasn't appropriate for under-age viewers - or those of any age, really.

Ponson, 23, has been the club's second-most dependable starter, but he showed his youth after being handed a 7-0 lead going into the bottom of the second.

Incredibly, the Yankees had the lead just one out later.

Ponson allowed a single to Bernie Williams to open the inning, then walked four straight Yankees to force in two runs and commit a major violation of one of baseball's basic tenets, don't beat yourself.

"That's the first time this year that Sidney lost his composure," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "Always before, he's been able to step back, relax, be aggressive and throw strikes. Today, he wasn't able to do that."


"He's 23 years old," Hargrove said. "There are high expectations for Sidney, and rightfully so, but he's still a work in progress."

He got one out on a fielder's choice with the bases loaded, but then he was gone after allowing a single to Chuck Knoblauch.

"I just stunk. I couldn't throw strikes," Ponson said. "I was [mad] after the second walk. What can you say? I had a 7-0 lead and I blew it."

Actually, he had some help, as Johnson replaced him and quickly yielded two home runs without recording an out as the Yankees took the lead.

Banished to the bullpen after his last start, Johnson is just lost right now, moored at a lowest possible ebb.

The Yankees didn't exactly pitch well themselves, with rookie starter Ed Yarnall especially brutal.

"I saw major-league pitchers who couldn't get the job done on both sides today," Hargrove said.

But it's all relative with the Orioles now 11 games under .500 and 13-34 on the road with a pitching staff as battered as any in the game.

Whatever Mussina wants, Mussina should get.

Ponson is young, Scott Erickson is struggling and everything else in the rotation is a major question mark.

No matter which way the Orioles go, if they choose to rebuild over the next few years or patch together a winner in 2001, Mussina is the perfect centerpiece. He's a good role model for youngsters and he's in the prime of his career, utterly irreplaceable.

The Orioles have offered him a five-year contract worth $60 million, with $10 million deferred. That's less than Kevin Brown got from the Dodgers in the fall of 1998.

Yes, the Orioles need to negotiate effectively to try to limit the cost, but the longer they wait, the better the chances of Mussina feeling unappreciated, testing the market after the season and hitting the highway.

That would devastate the pitching staff and undermine any efforts by club officials to claim they're moving in the right direction.

That signing Mussina was a must was obvious before, but it was blatantly so yesterday as the Yankees circled and circled the bases and a big lead disappeared within minutes.

A team so lacking in pitching can't afford to play hardball with its ace.

This isn't complicated.

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