Mussina still unable to finish when it matters most

October 14, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

BOSTON - Mike Mussina sat in the trainer's room a long, long time after last night's 3-2 loss in Game 4 of this American League Championship Series. He was in no hurry to discuss a negative trend that belies Mussina's ability and success.

So the clock inched toward midnight. A new day could not come fast enough.

The New York Yankees' coaches had to adorn their chests with bibs the day Mussina signed as a free agent. Eighty-eight million for six years - the Boss in the Bronx was willing to pay that November day in 2000. They jumped at Mussina after the Orioles dithered and dallied.

"Only thing I was thinking is we've got ourselves another No. 1 pitcher," pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said. "We've got a bunch of them. It's made it easier in some regards and more difficult in other situations because you have so many guys who can carry the load."

The Yankees' coaches were drooling to get Mussina. Manager Joe Torre had called Mussina, hearing through the grapevine that maybe the Big Apple wasn't Mussina's cup of tea, but Torre said it would be good.

Now, the manager has to dial up some more words of encouragement.

"When you're a good pitcher and you throw a lot of strikes, you're going to give up a lot of home runs," Torre said. "He gave up two home runs with nobody on. I remember Robin Roberts. I remember Don Sutton. All of those guys gave up home runs with nobody on base.

"You go after people. They just beat him twice. We are not giving him a lot to work with. He's been pitching under pressure and he's done very well. We just haven't been able to pull the trigger on an inning for him."

It's hardly a bad situation these Yankees are in. The series is tied at two games each. Game 5 comes quick, with David Wells up against Derek Lowe this afternoon at Fenway Park.

Then again, the Yankees could have found themselves down a lot more against the Red Sox last night had manager Grady Little stopped sending runners off to be cut down. The Red Sox have run themselves out of innings, killed rallies, like last night in the third inning.

Trot Nixon had singled but he was thrown out at second on a strikeout, throw-out double play. When Doug Mirabelli singled after Bill Mueller's strikeout, the Red Sox had a runner on first with two outs when they should have had first and second with one out. It has become a glaring shortcoming for the Red Sox, otherwise Mussina's postseason ERA might have taken a bigger beating.

Likewise, the Red Sox are still waiting for shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to get out of his prolonged slump.

Doesn't matter. So far, Mussina is 0-2 in this ALCS. Meanwhile, it is 2-0 for Tim Wakefield, the knuckleballer who seems to only compound Mussina's postseason woes by having brilliant if not unusual playoff success.

A knuckler? Twice shifting the Yankees into panic mode? Hideki Matsui and Nick Johnson and Aaron Boone were three of Wakefield's major strikeout victims, twisting themselves into the Fenway dirt trying to bust one of the big dippers over the Green Monster.

Remember the famous Minnesota Twins' postseason rally cry about Viola and Blyleven and pray to heaven?

Well, the Red Sox have their own October prayer. They'll pray for another rainout to postpone Game 6, which is scheduled for tomorrow in the Bronx. Another delay in this ALCS and the Sox can throw another knuckler at the Yankees.

Tim Wakefield and pray for rain.

But what about Mussina?

Six consecutive postseason games without a win. Four losses in six attempts with an 4.98 ERA in those four losses.

More significant is that for all that control, for all those different pitches Mussina commands, he gave up two homers last night. The first was a monstrous blast by second baseman Todd Walker to give the Red Sox a 1-0 lead in the fourth.

"It's a big chess game with Mike Mussina because he's a thinking pitcher out there and I've faced him enough to know that's what you've got to do is think along with him," Walker said.

Torre said Jorge Posada and Mussina were not at odds over what to throw, although Mussina shook off Posada a few times.

"They work together all year. Moose is his own person. He knows what he wants to do. He's pretty definite. He and Posada have worked well all year. When you miss your spot, bad things happen. He made a lot of good pitches but that wasn't good enough," Torre said.

In the top of the fifth, the Yankees got the run right back when Derek Jeter crushed a grounder up the line. The ball slammed into third base, jumped into the outfield, allowing David Dellucci to score. The Yankees were stymied when Jason Giambi and Posada flied out to end the inning with bases loaded.

Right away, Mussina gave up the lead again, surrendering a bases-empty shot to Nixon. He squinted into the bright lights and rubbed up another ball.

"The pitch to Walker was too much over the plate, otherwise he threw good pitches," Posada said about Mussina.

Good pitches but results that make Mussina the subject of speculation that he is just good enough but not great when it counts the most. The 10 strikeouts were impressive, but the result was not.

The two homers he gave up last night pushed his total for this series to five. That, unfortunately for him, ties a major league record with Eric Show, who got taken deep five times for the 1984 San Diego Padres.

Mussina's career total for homers surrendered is now 13 in 14 career postseason games.

No wonder Mussina sat in the trainer's room, disgusted or tired or wondering what it's going to take to feel the way that knuckleballer Wakefield feels: untouchable.

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