Mussina is ace in the hole

ON BASEBALL

September 19, 2004|By JOE CHRISTENSEN

Only the New York Yankees, it seems, could spend $88.5 million on a pitcher, and never expect him to be their ace.

Such is life for Mike Mussina, who left the Orioles after the 2000 season and signed a six-year deal with George Steinbrenner's band of traveling All-Stars.

Mussina was very good his first three years in New York, as he went 17-11, 18-10 and 17-8, but it was easy for him to slip into the background on a pitching staff that included Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells, who was there in 2002 and 2003.

Those three teammates departed after the Yankees fell to the Florida Marlins in last year's World Series, and Mussina, 35, who is still looking for that elusive first world title, knew he'd have to shoulder more of the load.

So he picked a bad year to come down with the first significant arm injury of his career. He missed six weeks with elbow stiffness in July and August, while the Yankees started losing ground rapidly to the Boston Red Sox in the American League East.

"It's the first time in quite a while," Mussina said, "that I had to take two steps back and relax and let [the arm] take care of itself."

Right when everyone was ready to write off this Yankees team because of its starting pitching woes, Mussina - now 11-9 with a 4.76 ERA - started looking like himself again.

His season numbers are decidedly mediocre, but in his past three starts, he is 2-1 with a 1.09 ERA, with 25 strikeouts in 23 innings.

He tossed eight innings in both of his past two starts, and struck out a season-high 11 in Tuesday's 4-0 victory over the Kansas City Royals. He'll take the mound today, opposite Pedro Martinez, as the Yankees and Red Sox wrap up their three-game showdown at Yankee Stadium.

"He's right where we need him right now," Yankees manager Joe Torre said of Mussina last week in Baltimore. "His last three or four starts, he seems to be getting stronger every time out."

These Yankees don't scare people the way they did heading into Mussina's first three postseasons in New York, and much of that has to do with the starting pitching.

With Kevin Brown's left hand still recovering from his idiotic temper tantrum, the Yankees' postseason rotation could be Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, Mussina, Javier Vazquez and Jon Lieber.

Vazquez, long thought to be this team's new jewel, showed signs of shaking his second-half slump on Wednesday, but the Yankees don't have the 1-2 punch to match probable postseason challengers. The Red Sox have Martinez and Curt Schilling, Minnesota has Johan Santana and Brad Radke, and Oakland has Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder.

Mussina can understand the skepticism.

"I think people are looking at it that way because of the personnel," he said. "Two of them [Vazquez and Lieber] aren't names that Yankee fans have known or cheered for for very long.

"Not that the people we have aren't skilled and capable and accomplished. They all are. But when you've got a Hall of Famer [Clemens]; Pettitte, who was in the postseason every year he was here; and Wells, who's a 200-game winner, that's a tough act to follow."

Guillen strikes again

The Chicago White Sox may be playing out the string this month, but there's never a dull moment with first-year manager Ozzie Guillen. After calling umpire Hunter Wendelstedt a "liar" last month, he really had some words for Texas Rangers manager Buck Showalter.

On Sept. 9, the Rangers used roving pitching instructor John Wetteland to coach first base against the White Sox. Guillen asked the umpires if that was OK and was told Texas had received permission to use Wetteland.

In his post-game news conference, Showalter said, "I guess [Guillen] didn't know you could carry seven coaches in September."

When Guillen heard this, he went off.

"Even after the game, I forgot about it," Guillen said. "Now all of a sudden they come up with his comments, and I think it's unprofessional. But when the best manager in the history of baseball talks about you, that means you're on somebody's mind. And when you're beating the crap out of the best manager in baseball ... it makes me feel a lot better."

The two managers have been sparring since the White Sox used a lineup card during spring training with head shots and e-mail addresses for each of the players, mocking Showalter's attention to detail.

"I could have made a big deal about [Wetteland], but I was professional enough because I respect the guy that was coaching first base," said Guillen, who was a three-time All-Star with the White Sox. "Wetteland did something in the big leagues. [Showalter] never even smelled a jock in the big leagues. Mr. Baseball never even got a hit in Triple-A."

Jottings

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