CHICAGO -- Mike Mussina returned to the scene of his major-league debut last night and extracted a large measure of revenge against the Chicago White Sox.
It was last Aug. 4 that Mussina lost his first game, a 1-0 decision decided by a home run hit by Frank Thomas. The 23-year-old right-hander didn't get everything he wanted in his return to Comiskey Park -- he came within one out of a complete-game shutout -- but he did get what mattered most.
"We're out here to win," said Mussina. "And if that means me coming out of a game with two outs in the ninth inning, then that's the way it's got to be."
Mussina allowed four singles in 8 2/3 innings before getting last-out help from Gregg Olson, as the Orioles got run-scoring singles from Brady Anderson and Mark McLemore to beat the White Sox, 2-0. The win was the third straight for the Orioles on this trip, their fifth straight on the road -- and their 12th in the past 15 starts overall. Coupled with Toronto's loss to the Seattle Mariners, it moved the Orioles within a half-game of the American League East-leading Blue Jays. The standings will show the Orioles on top because their .6764 winning percentage is better than the Blue Jays' .6756.
It was also the fifth straight victory for Mussina (5-0), making the Orioles the only team in the major leagues with three five-game winners.
There was a very large reason Mussina wasn't allowed to finish last night -- Thomas. The big first baseman entered the game with a lifetime batting average of .875 (7-for-8) against Mussina.
So when Robin Ventura lined a two-out single up the middle in the ninth inning, Orioles manager Johnny Oates was out of the dugout and signaling for Olson almost before the play was completed.
"Of all the guys in baseball, he [Thomas] is the one I least want to see coming to the plate in that situation," Oates said. "There was no decision there.
"Even if the guy coming up had gone 0-for-17, he [Mussina] wasn't going to face him. He had given me 8 2/3 innings, and there was no way he was going to get anything but a win."
But even though the move was virtually automatic, it wasn't without risk. Thomas, who has hit the Orioles throughout his brief career, beat Olson with a 10th-inning home run a week ago in Baltimore.
Thomas couldn't duplicate those heroics, but he did prolong the anxiety attack. He got an infield hit when third baseman Leo Gomez failed to come up with his high bouncer.
That brought George Bell to the plate representing the potential winning run. But Olson polished off his eighth save (in nine opportunities) by inducing a ground ball to shortstop Cal Ripken, who executed a game-ending force play at second base.
Mussina said he didn't want to leave the game but knew when he left the dugout for the last inning there was only one way he could finish. "I knew if I didn't have a 1-2-3 inning, I was coming out," he said.
Did he want to pitch to Thomas?
"I wanted a complete game," said Mussina. "I started it. I might as well finish.
"But I knew if somebody got on, I would be out of the game. Given my success against Thomas, the fact that I blew one last year in Cleveland [he took a 1-0 lead into the ninth and lost 2-1], and Otter [Olson] going so good, I understand the move."
That Mussina didn't get the last out did not diminish the job he did. Oates said he struggled a bit with his location early in the game, but for the most part, Mussina dominated the White Sox.
"My curveball was the best it's been this year," he said. "Not the best it's been, but the best this year."
Mussina needed his best performance of the year to out-duel Alex Fernandez (2-4). The Orioles managed eight hits, but only two of them weren't of the scratch variety.
Fernandez gave up a tainted run in the third inning, when Gomez (hitting in his sixth straight game) hit a soft double into the right-field corner. Gomez scored the game's first run on a single by Anderson that scooted under the glove of Thomas at first base.
It appeared that Gomez would be out on the play, but catcher xTC Ron Karkovice couldn't handle the throw from right fielder Dan Pasqua.
An inning later, the Orioles appeared to have Fernandez on the ropes when Sam Horn and Randy Milligan opened with walks. But Chris Hoiles took a called third strike on a 3-2 pitch, Joe Orsulak went out meekly to second baseman Steve Sax and Gomez struck out.
Both pitchers were dominating in the middle innings, with 19 straight hitters being retired at one point. The Orioles ended that streak by bunching three singles with one out in the seventh.
Orsulak looped a hit to right-center, went to third when Gomez did the same thing and scored when McLemore singled sharply to left-center.
The White Sox's best opportunity against Mussina came in the third, when Lance Johnson singled and stole second. After Craig Grebeck struck out, Johnson was thrown out attempting to steal third. That play loomed significant when Tim Raines followed with a walk.
That was to be the last White Sox hitter to reach base until pinch hitter Warren Newson got an infield hit with one out in the eighth.
Mussina retired Johnson and Grebeck routinely to end the eighth, then got Raines and Steve Sax on fly balls to right to open the ninth. At that point, he was one out away from the Orioles' fourth complete-game shutout of the season (they had five all last year).
But Ventura spoiled those thoughts with his hit, setting up the final dramatics between Olson, Thomas and Bell.