MILWAUKEE -- The time between starts flew by when Mike Mussina was getting battered earlier this month. He would get hit around, and then before he knew it, before he felt ready, Mussina would be back on the mound again.
So it was a good thing, he said he thought when he warmed up yesterday, that it seemed like weeks since he last pitched. Mussina said he couldn't wait to throw against the Milwaukee Brewers, and he did so strongly, allowing four hits and two runs in eight innings in the Orioles' 4-2 victory.
Mussina (7-5) did not give up a homer, the first time that has happened since April 26, in his first start of the year, and he picked up his first road victory of the year.
"Today," said Orioles manager Phil Regan, "he looked like the pitcher that he's been in the past."
Just in time. When Kevin Brown and Ben McDonald went on the disabled list, the Orioles were facing a two-week stretch, leading up to the All-Star break, that effectively could have ended their hopes of winning the AL East.
Though they haven't made up much ground, they have stayed afloat and are playing their baseball best of the year. The three wins over the Brewers represent the Orioles' first sweep of the year; they have won four games in a row and seven of their past 10.
"We could've fallen out," said Regan. "We could've folded up. We could've said we're done. But we didn't do that."
Mussina has two of the Orioles' past seven wins. But when he lasted just one-plus inning against Detroit on June 18, his fastball was clocked in the mid-80s; he usually throws around 90 mph. Mussina said afterward that he felt OK physically, but lethargic. There was no life to his pitches.
However, his fastball has been revitalized. He beat the Brewers yesterday with a fastball that was often in the low 90s. Catcher Greg Zaun agreed that it was hard to believe that Mussina ever struggled, based on how well he pitched against Milwaukee. "He was pitching like I've always seen him pitch," Zaun said. "He looked like the old Mike to me."
After the first inning, anyway. Mussina got into immediate trouble, walking leadoff hitter Fernando Vina. Then center fielder Darryl Hamilton chopped a grounder into the first-base hole, and Rafael Palmeiro threw the ball away, leaving runners on second and third. A couple of groundouts scored Vina and Hamilton, Milwaukee led 2-0, and B. J. Surhoff doubled.
But that was it. Mussina dominated thereafter, retiring the next 15 hitters before Kevin Seitzer singled with two outs in the sixth.
"He was really good after the first inning," Zaun said. "He mixed his curveball and his fastball, and he saved a few good changeups for the end."
Regan said, "Mike kind of looked like he found himself."
Regan said that during Mussina's slump in mid-June, he might have been trying to pitch too finely. Maybe, Regan suggested, because of all the homers that Mussina allowed, he was trying to pitch too perfectly.
But the source of Mussina's problems may be much more elementary than that. For eight months, once the players' strike began, Mussina waited at home in Pennsylvania for a resolution.
No matter what kind of workout you do during the off-season, he said, it's not the same as pitching in the majors. Sitting out as long as he did might have temporarily affected his durability and strength.
Look at all the pitchers who are getting hurt, Mussina said.
"I feel fortunate to feel as good as I do," Mussina said.
He threw 116 pitches, 72 strikes, overcoming an eighth-inning walk by retiring Hamilton and Seitzer. "I wouldn't say that I'm at the level I'd expect to be," he said, "but I'm getting closer."
Jesse Orosco struck out Dave Nilsson and Surhoff in the ninth, and then gave way to Doug Jones, who gave up a single to Joe Oliver before striking out Jeff Cirillo.
The Orioles tied the Brewers at 2 in the second inning. Cal Ripken doubled to left before Harold Baines homered off Ricky Bones, a line drive to right field.
Zaun grounded out to open the fourth, but Bones walked Leo Gomez and Curtis Goodwin. Then Brady Anderson whacked a double off the base of the wall in right-center, Gomez scoring easily and Goodwin sliding through Oliver's block of the plate.
The Orioles' clubhouse was loud in celebration afterward. Look at this, Regan said, noting that earlier in the year the Orioles were quiet even after a victory.
"I think we're much more close-knit than we were," Regan said. "I can really feel this team coming together."
Mussina is very bright, and skeptical by nature, but even he sees something evolving in the Orioles.
"We won four out of seven at home," he said. "[Tuesday] we came out and put up 11 runs on the board. Today we came back from being down 2-0. Brady had a big double."
This is much more like it used to be, Mussina said.
"You know somebody is going to make the pitch when you need it," he said, "somebody is going to get a big hit, somebody is going to make the play."
Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays
Site: SkyDome, Toronto
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Sid Fernandez (0-3, 8.10) vs. Blue Jays' Juan Guzman (1-3, 7.81)