Title shot carries special urgency for Mussina

Nearing 35, former Oriole still lacks championship

World Series

October 21, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

MIAMI - When Mike Mussina left the Orioles and signed that big contract with the New York Yankees three years ago, he could have been forgiven for thinking world championships were a right, not a privilege.

Now, he knows better.

The fresh-faced pitcher, who made his major league debut with the Orioles in 1991, will be 35 in December. His oldest daughter, Kyra, turns 14 on Christmas Day.

He's halfway through that six-year, $88.5 million contract, and he still doesn't have a championship ring.

So when Mussina takes the mound tonight for Game 3 of the World Series, he'll hardly be taking the moment for granted.

"I think at this point," Mussina said yesterday, "being in my third year [with New York] and at my age, I do appreciate the fact that even though I play for the Yankees, we're not going to be in the World Series every year."

In 2001, Mussina's first season with the Yankees, he helped them reach the World Series and saw a potential fourth consecutive title get snatched from their hands in Game 7 by Arizona.

Last year, Mussina was part of a Yankees team that won 103 regular-season games, only to stumble against the Anaheim Angels in the first round.

This year, the Yankees won 101 games but needed every ounce of good fortune and skill to get past the Boston Red Sox in a surreal American League Championship Series.

Mussina looks around the clubhouse and sees fixtures who might not be around next year. Roger Clemens plans to retire. Andy Pettitte can become a free agent. The team holds a club option for David Wells.

"There's going to be some turnover," Mussina said. "There's going to be some guys that won't be back next year. We're all wondering if Roger is going to be back. He claims he's not. We're hoping we can make this group a winner again."

The key word is hoping. Mussina doesn't know for sure.

He has made three starts this postseason, and the Yankees have lost all three.

His ERA in those starts isn't terrible, at 4.65, but New York scored just five runs in those three games combined.

After Game 4 of the ALCS - a 3-2 loss to the Red Sox that evened the series at 2-2 - Mussina vented his frustration about his infield's inability to turn a crucial double play.

"I can only control 60 feet, 6 inches [the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate]; that's the best I can do," he said. "The other stuff has to be attended to by other people."

The tabloids had a field day with that one. One headline in the New York Post said, "MOOSE DROPS BOMB ON YANKS; Loser Mike Blames Mates For Game 4 Defeat."

Manager Joe Torre has hustled to Mussina's defense.

"I think Mike really wasn't concerned about the lack of wins, just the fact that in the games he pitches, we didn't win," Torre sad. "I think Mike is pretty much a victim of us not scoring any runs for him."

The situation could have lingered into the offseason, but like a lot of things, the worst of it went away after New York beat Boston in Game 7.

One day earlier, Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre had told Mussina to be ready to pitch out of the bullpen. That was well and good, except Mussina hadn't pitched in relief since high school.

That's OK, Stottlemyre assured him. They would only use him to start an inning - not with runners on base.

But Clemens faltered early in Game 7. Torre told Mussina to start warming up in the fourth inning. The Red Sox made it 4-0, and with no outs, they had runners at first and third. With the season careening out of control, Torre needed Mussina right then and there.

Mussina came in and stopped the bleeding, escaping the fourth inning without further damage and finishing with three innings of scoreless relief. The Yankees came back to win, 6-5, on Aaron Boone's dramatic, 11th-inning home run, and the New York Post came back with a headline that said, "GUTTY MOOSE UNSUNG HERO."

"I'm just happy I was able to do something I don't usually do," Mussina said, and help the team get to the World Series."

Two years ago, Mussina made two World Series starts against Arizona, and went 0-1 with a 4.09 ERA. So he'll be looking for his first Series win tonight, and if it comes, the Yankees will be two wins away from giving him his first ring.

"We would not be down here right now," Torre said, "unless it was for him."

Series glance

Tonight's game

N.Y. Yankees at Florida 8:32, chs. 45, 5

Starters: Yankees' Mike Mussina (17-11, 3.46) vs. Marlins' Josh Beckett (10-9, 2.99)

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