Back on roll, Mussina tries to pick up Yanks

Angels handle Clemens, Pettitte, but `Moose' is in groove his past 7 starts

Baseball

October 04, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Lauded for having the postseason's deepest rotation, the New York Yankees arrived in the shadow of Disneyland yesterday morning looking to jump off a roller coaster they never intended to ride.

That's because they didn't expect Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte to strap them in so tightly.

Clemens and Pettitte couldn't give the Yankees sufficient innings in their respective starts against the Anaheim Angels, who remain uncharacteristically calm for a team with virtually no playoff experience and even in the American League Division Series at 1-1. Clemens failed to make it through the sixth, Pettitte was gone after the third, and the Yankees had no choice except to brace for wild swings in momentum and unpredictable finishes.

"We obviously have pitched better as starters [in the past]," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "We expect to pitch better. We certainly need a starter to get us late into the game. We just need somebody to shut the other team down."

Now it's Mike Mussina's turn to try, and perhaps nobody is better equipped to deal with the highs and lows than him. It got so bad this summer, he became more vulnerable to motion sickness than a sore arm.

Mussina, who bolted the Orioles for a six-year deal from the Yankees in November 2000, will oppose Anaheim's Ramon Ortiz in tonight's Game 3. He posted a 1.22 ERA in his past seven starts and didn't allow a run over his last 27 innings.

Talk about a sharp turn. In consecutive starts on July 31 and Aug. 6, Mussina allowed 25 hits and 12 earned runs over 10 innings. Some club officials worried that he was hurt, which he denied. But there had to be some reason for his worst slump, where opponents batted.315 against him after June 1.

"If I had known what it was, I would have found it in May or June," Mussina said. "But it took until about the middle of August to start throwing the ball the way I feel good about throwing it."

Mussina's hot finish left him 18-10 with a 4.05 ERA in 33 starts. He tied Oakland's Barry Zito for third in the American League with 182 strikeouts and he has flourished in past Division Series, going 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA. After the Yankees lost the first two games to Oakland last year, Mussina threw seven shutout innings for a 1-0 victory in Game 3.

"I fought myself most of the summer to figure out what really wasn't right," he said. "Eventually, it all fell into place.

"I feel like I'm throwing the ball as well as I've thrown it all year. Does that mean ... it's going to be like it has been the last six weeks? No. It means I still have to work. I still have to prepare and I still have to take every pitch as seriously as I've taken every other pitch this year."

Torre kept sending Mussina to the mound, never giving serious consideration to making a change within a star-studded rotation. And Mussina never thought he was a hit or two away from going to the bullpen, which includes former starters Orlando Hernandez and Jeff Weaver for the postseason

"As much as Mike struggled, every time I gave him the ball, I expected knockout stuff and knockout results," Torre said.

Torre credits the turnaround to Mussina gaining better command of his breaking ball. "When he can't get it over the plate," Torre said, "all of a sudden it limits what he can do."

The next task for Mussina is limiting the production of an Anaheim offense that bashed 17 hits in Wednesday's 8-6 victory.

The Angels remain a pesky bunch, almost impossible to strike out and capable of putting the ball in play anywhere on the field. But they've also been mashing it in a style the Yankees can appreciate, with four more home runs in Game 2 giving them six in the series.

If the Yankees are the Bronx Bombers, than the Angels are the Orange County Crush.

"We're not the home run-bashing team. That's not what we do," said Troy Glaus, the first player in franchise history to hit three in the postseason. "We do whatever it takes to win, no matter the circumstance."

"It's no surprise," Torre said. "We played them during the season and we saw the same type of ballclub. They're scrappy. They just battle. So we knew when we went into this series what they were about."

Just as the Angels knew all about the Yankees' aura and mystique, which Mussina will attempt to recapture tonight while smoothing out the same bumps in this series that he felt through much of the season.

"You're always going to face the question of Yankee magic until you win," shortstop David Eckstein said. "It's something you have to confront head-on."

And with seat belts fastened.

Pitching matchups

Today

Time/StarterLineW-LERAOakland Zito (L)-15523-52.75

at Minnesota Reed (R)4:0615-73.78

New York Mussina (R)-13518-104.05

at Anaheim Ortiz (R)8:0615-93.77

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