NEW YORK -- When the damage was done, after the New York Yankees had broken up a marvelous duel between Stanford alumni with a fractured three-run rally, Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina stood on the mound and shook his head.
Utter disgust. It was a throwing error by Mussina, the first error by the Orioles in 64 innings, that led to the Yankees' 3-0 victory last night. Jack McDowell shut out the Orioles on three hits, the same number Mussina gave up in seven innings.
"It's probably the best stuff I've had in awhile," said Mussina, whose streak of eight straight wins ended. "And maybe my worst fielding."
With each passing day, the Orioles fade. They fell to nine games behind first-place Boston and 3 1/2 games behind the Yankees, and tonight Orioles rookie left-hander Rick Krivda makes his fourth major-league start against AL Cy Young Award winner David Cone.
Because of that matchup, because of the miserable way the Orioles performed on the recently concluded homestand, Mussina's outing last night was arguably the most important game of the year for the Orioles. First game of a weeklong road trip through New York and Boston, and their ace was beaten.
Beat himself, in the end, in a pitching matchup that overshadowed the return of Darryl Strawberry and Bobby Bonilla to New York.
The Yankees had a total of three base runners in the first six innings, but Ruben Sierra walked to open the seventh. Don Mattingly flied to left. Strawberry lifted a fly to right, and the crowd screamed, those screams dying as the ball fell into the glove of Bonilla in medium-deep right.
With Mike Stanley at the plate, Sierra tried to steal second and the throw from Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles beat him. But Sierra slid on the right-field side of second, came up and twisted his body around the tag of second baseman Bret Barberie and jabbed his right toe into the base. Umpire Greg Kosc called him safe. The replay would show that Barberie had tagged Sierra just before he hit the bag.
"Nine times out of 10, you get that call," said Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. "No, 10 times out of 10. We didn't get the call."
Mussina, beginning to labor, walked Stanley. However, Mussina got two strikes on Tony Fernandez, and was in control. Fernandez hit a hard chopper back to the mound. Mussina reached to grab the ball, but the bouncer kicked off his glove and rolled behind the mound.
In hindsight, Mussina might've chosen to just pick up the ball and pitch to Pat Kelly with the bases loaded. But Mussina charged the ball, turned and fired as he fell away from first base.
His throw, tailing away from Palmeiro, nearly grazed Fernandez, and Palmeiro reached in vain for the ball, which bounced against the stands. Sierra scored, Stanley went to third and Fernandez to second.
"If I had thrown it to [Palmeiro], he'd have been out," said Mussina, who lost for the first time since June 18. "I could've thrown it too quickly. I was in a hurry.
"If I tried to set myself, I'd have had to eat it. Maybe eating it would've been the proper play."
Kelly then pulled a double past third baseman Jeff Manto, scoring two more unearned runs, and there was Mussina, shaking his head on the mound. An old friend had gotten the best of him.
McDowell and Mussina both attended Stanford University. They never played together as teammates there, just missing each other. McDowell, three years older, served as one of the Mussina's hosts during Mussina's recruiting trip to Stanford.
McDowell turned pro before Mussina enrolled, but as they TC developed a good friendship -- "I know Jack about as well as I know anybody in baseball," Mussina said -- they've become two of baseball's best pitchers.
But for one reason or another, they never pitched against each other. Until last night.
And they pitched, each appearing so dominant through the early innings that it was a feat for the hitters merely to get ahead in
McDowell painted both edges of the plate with fastballs. The Orioles often swung their bats as if they were hitting uphill. Their only base runner in the first five innings was Cal Ripken, who dumped a single down the right-field line with one out in the second -- and then was doubled off after Mattingly speared Harold Baines' line drive.
Mussina shut out Toronto last week, and afterward he said he felt somewhat lucky. Most days, he said, he didn't have command of his fastball, curve and change as he did that night.
If that was luck, then Mussina had the same sort of fortune. Excellent fastball, perhaps his best of the year. Good changeup. Good curveball. On top of all that, Mussina outsmarted the Yankees.
Mussina often uses his changeup to finish off hitters. Gets two strikes and opponents guard against his fastball and Mussina will flop a low changeup and hitters will flail.
In the first inning last night, Mussina went to a two-strike count on Wade Boggs. Instead of protecting against a fastball, Boggs waited for a changeup. By the time Mussina's fastball buzzed past him for strike three, Boggs, one of the toughest hitters to strike out, had barely started his bat in motion.
The Yankees' second hitter, Bernie Williams, fell into a two-strike count. Williams waited for a changeup. He got a fastball and, like Boggs, he swung late and missed. Same thing for Paul O'Neill, a late swing for strike three. Extraordinary pitching.
Fernandez finally blooped a single over Ripken in the third inning, and with two outs, Boggs lined to left. But left fielder Kevin Bass made a sliding catch, killing what, in this game, qualified as a rally.
McDowell finally wavered in the sixth. Hoiles lined a single over the head of second baseman Kelly. Then Bass, with one extra-base hit since June 27, unloaded a high, deep drive to right-center. Gauging the depth and trajectory of Bass' smash, and the position of center fielder Williams, there looked to be no way Williams could reach the ball.
He did, reaching up and making the catch on the dead run. Hoiles was four or five steps past second, thinking the ball would bounce and he would score. He had to re-tag second and hustle back to first. Brady Anderson walked with two outs, but Kelly knocked down Barberie's hard grounder and McDowell had gotten out of trouble.
McDowell, preserving a tired Yankees bullpen, finished the game to a standing ovation. Regan said: "We had three hits for the second game in a row. Three hits."
The Orioles are hitting .168 over their last six games, with a total of 15 runs. They have been three-hit by the likes of McDowell, one-hit by the likes of Toronto rookie Paul Menhart.
Somebody asked Regan about the importance of Krivda's start tonight.
"We need a well-pitched game," he said. "But we got one tonight, so. . . ."
So they need some hits and some runs. The season is wasting away for the Orioles.
Opponent: New York Yankees
Site: Yankee Stadium, New York
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Rick Krivda (0-0, 3.71) vs. Yankees' David Cone (11-6, 3.32)