TORONTO -- This was late Sunday at Camden Yards, as the Orioles were celebrating a 10-inning win and showering to catch a plane to their biggest series of the season so far. Randy Milligan was putting the knot in his tie. "The first game is the big game," he said.
So goes one of those chaw-splattered baseball axioms: If you win the first game of an important series, for the rest of the series you are playing for the win. Lose, and you are on defense. "The first game establishes the series," Milligan said.
The Orioles had the powers of establishment in their dugout last night. They were throwing Mike Mussina against the Blue Jays' Todd Stottlemyre. Their No. 1 against the worst starter in the American League. Yeah, the worst. You could look it up: Of the 46 starters in the league with at least 100 innings, Stottlemyre had the highest ERA.
But as thunderstorms rattled around outside SkyDome, a piece of magic occurred inside on the green carpet. Mussina got younger. In the six-plus innings he was on the mound, he lost years. The famously unflappable All-Star suddenly became a 23-year-old in his first pennant race.
In the first big game of his career, Mussina had the worst game of his career. How is that for an ugly piece of symmetry? The only good news was that it did not take long to find out he had absolutely nothing on the ball.
The first Jays batter singled. The third hit a 419-foot home run. The fourth walked. The fifth singled. The sixth hit a 380-foot out. The Jays scored twice in the inning and three times in the third.
If Alan Mills were not coming out of the bullpen to start tonight, Mussina probably would have been gone after Candy Maldonado's home run with two out in the third.
"It wasn't that I didn't have decent stuff," Mussina said. "I just didn't throw it where I wanted. I'd get two strikes and throw it down the middle. Come inside and put it where they could hit it. I made a lot of bad pitches. I got hit hard."
So, on a perfect night for the Orioles to move within a game of the Blue Jays, they had to write off a loss to the education of their best young pitcher. "It's one I need to learn from," Mussina said. But as education goes, it was strictly a private school gig. Very expensive.
The Orioles can now forget leaving here in first place. With three games left in the series, they will be fortunate to leave with a split. Shoot, they will be thrilled to leave with a split.
Maybe that was the more realistic goal all along, instead of the three of four that some players allowed themselves to imagine, but considering the sad state of the Jays' starting pitching, the Orioles had every right to come in here thinking big.
So they thought big. They just didn't play big. If the series was indeed "established" last night, what the Orioles established was that they will spend the next three games trying to get back to where they were in the standings when they got here.
As Mike Dukakis said: Oh well.
"I hope it isn't important," manager Johnny Oates said with a smile after the 8-4 loss.
He hopes. So does Mussina, who was as amazed as anyone at the pounding he took: three home runs, two doubles, 10 hits altogether. To anyone who has followed the Orioles this season, it was downright shocking to see him getting clobbered. That just had not happened.
Someone asked Mussina about the last time he was hit this hard.
"Must be college," he said after pausing for several seconds. "It's been at least two years since I just could not come up with the answer. And you know, the thing is, I had a couple of big defensive plays behind me there. It could have been worse."
Was it indeed big-series jitters, or just a bad outing?
"The series has gravity," said Mussina, showing off that Stanford degree on a stressful night, "but it isn't do or die. The plain fact is that I have been inconsistent lately. I have one good game and one bad game. I have to believe that I was due [for a bad outing], not that I would want to admit it. But my job is to be more consistent than this."
Oates had a simple explanation: "He's human."
Meanwhile, Stottlemyre, who can't get anyone else out, threw seven innings of five-hit, two-run ball, as solid as the roof of the SkyDome. Go figure: His career record against the Orioles is 6-0.
It's funny what you forget. You figured the Orioles had the advantage going in last night, but you forget that when the Orioles came here for the big series at the end of the '89 season, Stottlemyre was the first-game starter who gave up a leadoff homer -- and nothing more. You may recall how that series turned out.