Mussina nibbles, and the Tigers bite hard


At least they can't blame this one on an excessive pitch count.

It didn't take long to determine that Mike Mussina would not give a typical performance last night at Camden Yards. All it took was a dozen pitches.

When the Orioles' ace opened the game with full counts to each of the first two hitters, he was obviously in trouble. He labored through the first two innings, throwing almost half (59 of 120) of the pitches he would expend during the long evening.

During that stretch, Mussina issued four walks, the most he's allowed in a game this season, as he tried to nitpick his way through the Tigers' lineup. And this is a team against which he had a 5-0 record with a 1.57 ERA.

Nitpicking is definitely not Mussina's style. Depending on your preference, Mussina is either a power pitcher with control or a control pitcher who throws with power. And when his stuff is such that he has to resort to nibbling, he knows he's off his game.

Yet, the most amazing thing about Mussina's effort last night was that he actually kept the Orioles in the game for six innings. His pitching opponent, Tim Belcher, entered the game with a 2-8 record, and his 7.14 ERA didn't suggest he'd been pitching in bad luck.

However, as Mussina's pitch total mounted, you could sense the alarmists screaming "no mas, no mas." Forget that his last 60 pitches, though hardly spectacular, were a lot more effective than his first 60.

Pure and simple, Mussina didn't have it last night. But, given the condition of the Orioles' bullpen, it was almost imperative that Mussina hang in as long as he did. That he did it without allowing more than four runs is a tribute to his ability.

Mussina's difficulties would appear to be traceable to his lack of control. Even that is misleading.

During the first six innings, Mussina threw a higher percentage of strikes (64) than Belcher (60) -- and probably wishes he had missed the strike zone a few more times. Belcher needed only 68 pitches for those six innings, because the Orioles couldn't get any runners.

In the end, the numbers on the scoreboard were much uglier than those Mussina compiled on the pitching chart in an exceedingly sub-par performance.

And, believe it or not, things could've been worse. The Orioles could've scored a few runs early, and Mussina might've hung around long enough to throw another 15 or 20 pitches -- just enough to raise the ire of the dedicated pitch counters.

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