Yankees' fate in hands of Mussina

If ex-Oriole slips, his, team's hopes down drain for '01


October 13, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Tonight, among other things, represents the competitive lure that brought Mike Mussina to the New York Yankees shortly after Thanksgiving.

The chance to earn a World Series ring proved as irresistible to Mussina as the six-year, $88.5 million, no-trade contract the Yankees were willing to give him.

More than 10 months after leaving the Orioles, Mussina has found the stage he sought - Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Oakland Athletics. But so far the plot has been all wrong.

"For everybody who goes to spring training, this is where you want to be seven months later. We played well enough to warrant the opportunity to try to win another championship. This is part of the reason I decided to come," Mussina said.

"In my first year I get a chance to win a title. Hopefully, it won't be our last chance to try."

It will be this year should Mussina stumble. The Yankees find themselves in the untenable position of a 2-0 deficit after losing two games at home to the AL wild-card entry, a team that so far has outpitched and outslugged the three-time defending world champions.

The Yankees badly need traction. The A's have not trailed in their past five games against the Yankees and have won 17 consecutive games at home. Their two-game sweep at Yankee Stadium occurred without a hit with runners in scoring position.

Mussina represents the perfect pitcher for a most imperfect situation. He has been the Yankees' best arm since Aug. 7, nearly throwing a perfect game at the Boston Red Sox on Sept. 2, shutting out his former team Sept. 28 and allowing one or no earned runs in six of his past seven starts.

In his past 11 starts, Mussina saw his ERA go from a season-high 3.92 to 3.15, second lowest in the league, and improve his record to 17-11. The Orioles' five-run ambush against him at Camden Yards on Sept. 21 stands as his only recent blemish.

Mussina lost, 8-3, and received a no-decision in two starts against the A's this season. He is 8-4 with a 3.38 ERA in 13 appearances at Network Associates Coliseum, where he will be matched tonight against A's left-hander Barry Zito, like Mussina, his team's best September pitcher.

Two months shy of his 33rd birthday, Mussina has become the inscrutable, $88.5 million addition to a decorated staff anchored by five-time Cy Young Award-winner Roger Clemens.

He blended into a mix completed by left-hander Andy Pettitte, one of five pitchers in the past 50 years to win at least 12 games in his first seven seasons, and Orlando Hernandez, the only pitcher in major-league history to win his first eight postseason decisions.

"It's nice to be one of four guys because over the course of the year you have a very good chance every day. That's the way it turned out and why we're still here," said Mussina, who will make his seventh playoff start with a career 2-1 record and 2.53 ERA in the postseason.

Four years ago, Mussina's credentials as a big-game pitcher were questioned as the Orioles won their first division title since 1983. He answered with one of his generation's most dominant postseason performances.

Twice, he defeated Seattle Mariners ace Randy Johnson in the best-of-five Division Series, then struck out a record 15 against the Cleveland Indians in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. He followed with eight shutout innings in Game 6, which ultimately became a 1-0 loss in 11 innings.

"I hardly remember '97," he said, adding after a pause, "A lot of things have gone on."

Mussina has since married and become a father. He filed for free agency for the first time in his career last October and ultimately signed with his former team's chief rival.

Worthy of their own mini-series, details of his departure from the Orioles no longer seem relevant to him. Mussina preferred to become one of four aces on a three-time defending world champion instead of remaining the singular core of a rebuilding team's staff.

When he admits that he barely remembers 1997, he implies that the subsequent three seasons provided him precious little opportunity to work in an environment similar to tonight's.

"I faced Pedro [Martinez] twice in a row this year," Mussina recalls of May matchups that left him with a 2-1 win and a 3-0 loss against the Boston Red Sox's ace. "Every Mets game is a big game in this city. There are a lot of games where you're really under the microscope and you have to go out and perform."

Seldom has the magnification reached tonight's level. Mussina came to the Yankees to taste a World Series for the first time. Instead, he is all that stands between them and an ignominious exit.

"I don't have anything to prove," Mussina said. "When it's my turn to go pitch, it's my turn to pitch. These are all big games.

"When you pitch in New York for the defending world champions, there are a lot of big games along the way. I had some pretty tough matchups this year. I won quite a few low-scoring games."

Mussina knows only an abortive two-inning start against the Florida Marlins the first day after the All-Star break cost him an ERA title. He also knows the Yankees scored two runs or fewer in six of his losses, a tendency that also has cost them in this series.

He enters tonight with a 1.64 ERA and only 46 hits allowed in the 77 innings covering his past 11 starts. If it has not been his best season, he puts it in his top two.

Tonight comes another big game. Within this season, there can be none bigger.

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