Not an ace, but Mussina still holds all the cards

Ex-Oriole dominant in Yankees debut, 1-0

April 06, 2001|By NEWSDAY

NEW YORK - Mike Mussina jogged to the mound for the first time at 1:04 p.m. yesterday, after the national anthem, to mild and scattered applause. It was not a frenzy worthy of a grand opening. But when he walked off at exactly 3:04, after having secured the second out of the eighth inning, it was an entirely different kind of day.

Fans at Yankee Stadium gave him a standing ovation. They chanted his nickname, "Moooooooose." They understood that Mussina did more than beat the Kansas City Royals. They knew that he dominated the game and built a 1-0 win in his first appearance as a Yankee. And he proved that he can make an occasion rise to him.

He made that 1-0 score seem like a blowout because the Royals managed mostly weak grounders and soft flies. Mussina had the nerve and skill to throw a 3-0 changeup to the Royals' best hitter, Jermaine Dye, at the key point of the afternoon and wound up winning the battle.

Mussina was even better than Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte had been in the previous two games, and they were superb. So Mussina proved that even though he is third in the Yankees' All-Star rotation, he can be "The Man" every time he quietly goes out there.

"There are a lot of places I could have gone and they would have sent me out there on Opening Day," said the former Oriole, who chose the Yankees when he was a free agent this off-season. "And they would have expected me to perform as the Opening Day guy, win 22 games, and we don't really have a chance if we don't win 22. That isn't the case in this situation. Pitching behind Roger, and especially behind `Pet,' a left-hander, it really benefits me."

The pivotal moment yesterday occurred with two outs and a runner on first in the sixth inning. The count was 3-0 on Dye, and Jorge Posada signaled for a second straight changeup, knowing that most pitchers rely on fastballs in that situation to make sure they get the ball over the plate.

He got a strike on that pitch, then retired Dye on a grounder to short on a fastball. "The two changeups probably slowed him up just a hair," Mussina said.

The fact is, Mussina had the Royals off stride all day. They had only five hits and no walks. They didn't move a runner to second base after Dee Brown's second-inning double put runners on second and third with two outs. Mussina got out of that jam by striking out A. J. Hinch.

Of course, Mussina had help. Paul O'Neill hit a home run in the first against Dan Reichert, who pitched well for Kansas City. And Mariano Rivera retired the final four Royals batters for his first save of the season. But it was really Mussina's day from start to finish.

His fastball was crisp in the low 90-mph range. He fooled batters with his curveball, which Posada said is his greatest weapon. Perhaps his greatest weapon is that you don't know what his greatest weapon is.

"One at-bat, he can throw you a fastball down the middle and the next at-bat, he can throw you a breaking ball for a strike," said Yankees shortstop Luis Sojo, who added the fielders had to be on their toes because Mussina was working so quickly and throwing so many strikes (65 in 96 pitches). "That's why he's one of the best in the business. He doesn't miss."

Mussina doesn't miss Baltimore, where he pitched the past 10 years. There, he was the ace. There, he had to sweat out 1-0 games. Yesterday, even his own nerves were quiet. When asked if he had butterflies, he said, "Not really. I expected it. But it was a nice day, a great day to play. We had won the first two games, so we had won the series. Really, it was just a game in which I was just trying to throw strikes."



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