MINNEAPOLIS -- Not much has gone according to plan for the Orioles in the early weeks of the 1993 season, but one thing hasn't changed. Right-hander Mike Mussina remains one of the top pitchers in baseball.
The Twins didn't need to be reminded. They witnessed a similar performance six days earlier, when Mussina held them to five hits in an 11-0 victory at Camden Yards. Mussina has defeated Minnesota five consecutive times, and he has looked better each time.
He became the first Oriole to throw back-to-back shutouts since Hall of Famer Jim Palmer beat the Toronto Blue Jays, 1-0, on Aug. 29, 1982, and came back to throw a 3-0 gem against the Twins five days later. That's some heavy company, but Mussina (4-1, 2.55 ERA) doesn't seem to be overmatched by anyone.
"After a while, you run out of words to describe the kid," manager Johnny Oates said. "That was his 50th major-league start, and you've seen what he's done almost every time out there. He is in control. He knows what he wants to do. And when the game is on the line, he's able to do it."
He picked a perfect time to keep doing it yesterday. The victory was the fifth in the past seven games for the Orioles, who had a horrible start and now must overcome injuries to center fielder Mike Devereaux and designated hitter Harold Baines.
Mussina left nothing to chance. The two hits he allowed were not far from being outs, so yesterday's game was close to being a no-hitter. Twins third baseman Mike Pagliarulo's long double in the third inning might have been caught if rookie center fielder Damon Buford had gotten a good jump on the ball, and Chuck Knoblauch's sixth-inning single was short-hopped in left-center by a diving Brady Anderson.
"It's no secret," Twins manager Tom Kelly said. "He's outstanding. He's a No. 1 guy, an All-Star-caliber pitcher, that's for sure."
That would be the consensus of opinion in the Twins' clubhouse. Mussina is 5-1 lifetime against Minnesota. He has given up one earned run in his past 26 1/3 innings against them. The only team he has dominated more is the Detroit Tigers (3-0, 0.63 ERA).
"He throws everything for strikes," said Twins outfielder Kirby Puckett, who struck out twice in three at-bats. "That's the key to pitching: get ahead and change speeds. If you do that, you're tough.
"Once he gets ahead, you're pretty much at his disposal. When (( you're up there and it's 0-2 all the time, it's tough to hit him. He pitched ahead in the count all day."
Puckett went on to rate Mussina as one of the five or six best pitchers in the league, which sent the right-hander into a fit of false modesty.
"I have a lot of respect for Kirby and I appreciate the compliment, but I'm a 24-year-old pitcher who is still learning," Mussina said. .. "I'm trying to win some games and keep our team in the race. I'm not trying to be the best pitcher in the American League."
He is succeeding nonetheless. Mussina is 26-11 in his 50 starts. He has pitched through the fifth inning 48 times and into the seventh inning or later 43 times. He has given up two runs or fewer 31 times and averaged 7 2/3 innings per start.
"It's just good stuff and good location," Oates said. "He's able to adjust not only from game to game but from at-bat to at-bat. With some pitchers, when they get into trouble, you know what you're getting. He has four pitches and he has confidence in them all."
The Orioles took advantage of an erratic performance by Minnesota starter Willie Banks and made the Twins pay dearly for a throwing error by shortstop Jeff Reboulet to score three early runs.
Banks gave up a run on three hits in the third, the run scoring on a two-out double by Brady Anderson. Reboulet scooped up a sharp grounder by Leo Gomez in the fourth and tried to make a force play at second base, but his relay ended up in the right-field corner and helped produce two unearned runs.
Designated hitter Sherman Obando was in the middle of both rallies. He singled to open the third inning and scored on Anderson's double, then lined a single to center to bring home the second run of the fourth.
He was in the lineup because the Orioles had lost Baines to a rib-cage injury on Tuesday night, but he took advantage of a chance to earn a share of the playing time made available by the injuries to Devereaux and Baines.
Right fielder Mark McLemore also turned in a big offensive performance, reaching base four times in five plate appearances with three hits and a walk. He raised his average to .295 and continued to make a case for a full-time role in right field.
Still, the game was won on the mound, where Mussina took charge and got the Orioles even after Tuesday night's 4-3 loss in the series opener. The club needs all the leadership it can get right now, even if it has to come from one of its youngest players.
"I think that's always important, but especially now," Oates said. "We've been getting behind a lot -- about half of the runs we've given up have been in the first three innings. That's not good. We aren't the kind of club right now that can play catch-up. With Baines and Devereaux out, we need our starters to go out and give us a chance to get a lead . . . and give our lineup a chance to do some things."