CHICAGO -- Mike Mussina almost certainly put an end to speculation about his All-Star candidacy last night. But, despite assurances from all concerned, he did nothing to quell the curiosity about his physical condition.
Except for one swing, Mussina wasn't hit hard by the Chicago White Sox, but he was hit often. The 24-year-old right-hander gave up eight hits and seven runs in 3 2/3 innings to take the loss as the White Sox emerged from a prolonged hitting slump to pound the Orioles, 12-1.
For the most part, the home team spent the early innings hitting well-placed chip shots and ground balls until Robin Ventura came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the fourth inning. The White Sox already had a 3-1 lead when Ventura, in a 19-for-88 (.216) slump over his past 24 games, hit a 1-0 pitch just inside the right-field foul pole for his 14th homer of the year and the third grand slam of his career.
That provided the White Sox with a 7-1 lead that they promptly made insurmountable by bashing three more home runs off reliever Alan Mills in the next 2 1/3 innings.
Although he wasn't hit hard, Mussina's outing had to be extremely disappointing to himself and the Orioles. Mussina was pitching for the first time in 10 days, having skipped a start because of biceps tendinitis that was described as "mild but irritable."
"I felt fine -- a lot better than the result showed," Mussina said. "They hit some balls where my guys weren't standing and I got behind a couple of guys."
Manager Johnny Oates likewise felt that Mussina's troubles stemmed more from bad fortune than bad pitching.
"He told me [before the game] he was fine, and he threw the ball well," said Oates. "From an outsider's point of view, it appeared like he might have gotten a little frustrated. He gave up five hits in the second inning that weren't hit very well and he's not used to that.
"He might have lost his concentration a little bit and gotten frustrated when he couldn't make things happen. But he threw the ball well, and he didn't flinch. Based on what I saw, I have no reason to believe he isn't OK."
He did not appear to labor, despite throwing 81 pitches during his brief stint. But the disturbing part of the evening was the continuation of a trend that began four starts ago.
In those four games Mussina has pitched 18 innings, allowing 32 hits and 23 earned runs for an 11.50 ERA. In 12 previous starts, he had a 2.86 ERA.
Last night was the second straight time that Mussina (9-4) failed to pitch at least five innings, something he had done in 55 of his first 58 major-league starts.
Coincidence or not, Mussina's problems date to June 6, when he beat the Seattle Mariners, 5-2, raising his record to 8-2. At that point Mussina appeared to be a logical choice to be the American League's starting pitcher in the All-Star Game, to be played at Camden Yards on July 13.
But that was also the day the Orioles and Mariners engaged in a wild brawl that lasted 25 minutes and resulted in a total of seven suspensions. Mussina and the Orioles insist he wasn't hurt during the fight, but he has registered only one win (a 12-4 victory over the Red Sox in which he allowed four runs in six innings) in four starts since then and has hardly resembled the pitcher who was 18-5 a year ago.
It later was revealed (after a 1 2/3 -inning performance against Detroit on June 22) that Mussina's arm began showing signs of weakness during a 14-strikeout, 3-2 win over the Tigers on May 14.
However, it wasn't until after the game with the Mariners that the effects became noticeable. And it wasn't until after Mussina had made three more starts that his condition was revealed.
After last night's game, Mussina appeared a little frustrated, and perhaps even a little irritated at himself.
"It can't all be bad luck," he said when it was mentioned that most of the hits he allowed were clinkers. "I'm making some mistakes and I'm going to have to correct them."
All but one of the runs Mussina allowed last night came with two outs, and that also continued a trend. Of the past 19 runs that have been scored against him, all but two have come with two outs.
"I don't know what that is," he said. "Maybe I have a tendency that I don't know about. Whatever it is, it's not right and I'm going to have to figure it out."
Mussina's ERA rose to 4.28, but that is not of immediate concern. As long as he's healthy, he doesn't figure to stay in his slump too long.
And catcher Chris Hoiles dismissed any notion that the brawl against the Mariners has affected the way Mussina pitches.
"That's not Mike," he said. "He's not going to change the way he pitches, whether there's a fight or not. He's not going to be intimidated. We threw a lot of inside fastballs tonight.
"I think he threw the way he was throwing a month ago," Hoiles added. "His velocity was good, his fastball had good movement and he had a good changeup."
Last night's game might not have been a true barometer for Mussina, but it certainly was a tonic for the White Sox. They had been shut out twice and scored only four runs in their past four games.
But, with shortstop Ozzie Guillen and Ventura leading the way, the Western Division leaders broke loose for 13 hits to end a four-game losing streak.
Guillen had three hits, including his second home run, and drove in four runs. Bo Jackson (his sixth) and Ellis Burks (10th) also homered for the White Sox.
The offensive splurge made it an easy night for Alex Fernandez (9-4), who allowed only six hits over eight innings and lowered his ERA to 2.79, third best in the American League.
The Orioles' only run was the first of the game and was delivered by a ground-rule double by rookie outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, who has hit in seven of his first eight major-league games since being promoted from Triple-A Rochester.
NO 'IRON MIKE'
How Mike Mussina has fared in his four starts since the brawl between the Orioles and Seattle Mariners on June 6:
Date .. W/L .. IP .. H .. ER .. BB .. SO
6/11 .. W . .. 6 ... 8 .. 4 ... 2 ... 4
6/16 .. L . . 6 2/3 .. 11 .. 7 ... 1 ... 6
6/22 .. ND .. 1 2/3 5 .. 5 ... 1 ... 3
7/2 ... L . . 3 2/3 8 .. 7 ... 3 ... 2
Totals 1-2 .. 18 .. 32 . 23 ... 7 .. 15