KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- His catcher, his manager and his teammates all praised Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina after he beat Kansas City, 6-2, last night, and joined the Royals' Kevin Appier as the only American Leaguers with 11 wins.
But the best barometer of how well Mussina threw may have been umpire Durwood Merrill. Throughout the game, catcher Greg Zaun said, Merrill gave running commentary of Mussina's game.
The pitcher would throw his fastball or changeup on the corners, at the knees, and Merrill would say, yeah, good pitch. Hey, that's a really good one.
Mussina would fall behind in the count, fight back and get an out and Merrill would tell Zaun that pitcher and catcher had done a good job of bouncing back. Merrill had one last parting shot, when Mussina left after allowing six hits and no walks over eight innings.
Manager Phil Regan said: "Durwood turned and said, 'He had good stuff.' "
The Orioles, collectively, had good stuff. Zaun continued to surprise with his offense, hitting a two-run double. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro had a two-run double, as well, and Harold Baines hit his second homer in two days. The Orioles, who've won 17 of their last 26, completed a winning series (2-1), winning road trip (4-3), and closed to within five games of the first-place Boston Red Sox in the AL East.
Tomorrow, they begin a two-week homestand. "I'm happy with the way we're playing," Regan said, "and now we're going home."
And happy with the way Mussina is pitching. The Orioles' ace has had a couple of brutal starts this year, getting knocked out after one inning-plus in Detroit, and after two-thirds of an inning against Kansas City, in Camden Yards, two days after the All-Star break. His ERA before last night's game was 4.74.
But throw out those two bad starts, consider that he would be on a pace to win more than 20 games in a standard 162-game season, and suddenly Mussina's season looks pretty good.
Someone asked him last night if he wanted to make up for his last start against the Royals. "No," he said. "I guess the appropriate answer is, I just wanted to get out of the first inning."
He did that, and watched as the Orioles piled on the runs early.
The Orioles have been hurting for offense since catcher Chris Hoiles went on the disabled list a week ago. But in the three-game series against the Royals, Hoiles' replacement -- Zaun -- was blameless.
He walked to lead off the third inning, when the Orioles took a 2-0 lead. Curtis Goodwin struck out, after failing to lay down a sacrifice bunt, but Royals starter Tom Gordon walked Brady Anderson.
Bret Barberie flied to left, but Palmeiro slammed a line drive between left fielder Vince Coleman and center fielder Tom Goodwin, the ball hitting the wall. By the time Coleman relayed the ball back in, Zaun and Anderson, running hard with two outs, had both scored easily.
The Orioles added to their lead in the fourth inning. Baines scorched a single to right, and Kevin Bass walked. Leo Gomez hTC singled to left, Baines stopping at third. Zaun walked to the plate, with the bases loaded.
On Friday night, Zaun drove in four runs with three singles. On Saturday, he hit a bases-empty homer, a single, and a double. In two days, Zaun had six hits in eight at-bats, with two runs scored and five RBIs.
And more: Zaun, batting left-handed, rammed a liner into right. Because the outfield was shifted toward left, right fielder Jon Nunnally had to run a long way to reach the bouncing ball. Zaun reached second and two runs scored.
Goodwin hit a bouncer right back to Gordon, but the right-hander was on the ropes; left-hander Mike Magnante was warming in the bullpen.
Royals manager Bob Boone ordered an intentional walk to Anderson, hoping that the next hitter -- Barberie -- might hit into a double play.
But Gordon ruined that strategy by falling behind Barberie 3-0 and eventually walking him, to force in a run. Boone stalked out of the dugout to remove Gordon, who had walked five hitters in just 3 1/3 innings. The inning ended when Royals third baseman Keith Lockhart made a diving stop of Palmeiro's hard smash down the line, then got to his knees to start a 5-4-3 double play.
Trailing 5-0, the Royals made up a little ground in the bottom of the fourth. Lockhart, who had spent all of his decade-long career in the minor leagues before this year and now often hits third for Kansas City, hammered a long drive to right. The ball carried over the head of Bass, bouncing on the warning track and into the Royals bullpen.
Wally Joyner grounded out to first, advancing Lockhart to second, and then Bob Hamelin mashed a hard grounder up the middle. Barberie dove to his right to spear the ball, and got up to throw out Hamelin, but Lockhart scored on the play.
The Orioles scored a sixth run in the top of the fifth inning, Baines hitting a 2-2 pitch from Magnante over the right-field wall. It was Baines' second homer in two days, and his 13th of the year.
The Royals got another run in the seventh against Mussina, after there were two outs. Second baseman Greg Gagne doubled and David Howard singled, scoring Gagne, and Mussina, who finished the night with 121 pitches, seemed to be tiring. The Orioles' bullpen was warming.
But Brent Mayne grounded out to end the inning, and Mussina retired Kansas City in order in the eighth, before giving way to Jesse Orosco, who pitched a hitless ninth.
"All their big hits," Mussina said, "seemed to come with two outs."
Regan said afterward that he planned to keep playing the same lineup, with Zaun, Gomez and Barberie. "Unless," he said, smiling, "we make a trade."