Late Regan visit is only lull for master Mussina

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Mike Mussina was one out away from completing a 4-0 shutout of the California Angels, one runner on base, when Orioles manager Phil Regan stepped out of the dugout and walked slowly toward the mound.

"I was thinking, 'Don't take him out, don't take him out, don't take him out,' " said Orioles catcher Greg Zaun.

Regan stepped up the slope and asked Mussina directly, "Can you get this guy out?"

Mussina had allowed just four hits and two walks to that point and had struck out a season-high 11. The guy at the plate was Angels first baseman J. T. Snow, who had flied out weakly in his first three at-bats yesterday and was 3-for-21 against Mussina in his career.

Mussina, a master of sarcasm and king of the deadpan, looked at Regan, grinning tightly, and said, "Yes, I can get him out."

Regan departed, and, Mussina said, he and Zaun and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro all wondered aloud why the manager came out in the first place. Then Mussina retired Snow to end the game, becoming the major leagues' first 15-game winner.

Of course Mussina could get Snow; the right-hander is on a roll, throwing with excellent velocity and movement and location. When he's throwing like this, Orioles pitching coach Mike Flanagan said, "there's nobody better."

"He's been that way for three months," Flanagan said. "His mechanics are so solid. Most people can't fine-tune their mechanics . . . as the game goes along like he can. He'll fall out [of his mechanics] for a pitch or two, at most, before he corrects what he's doing wrong. The war is always him vs. the hitter, rather than him vs. himself."

The Angels lost the war against Mussina yesterday, in a big way. Jose Lind doubled leading off the third inning, and Mussina retired the next 14 hitters. They had only three runners in scoring position all day -- a runner never advanced as far as third -- and went 0-for-8 with runners on second.

"He did what you've come to expect him to do," said Regan.

Mussina beat Seattle with an exceptional curve on Aug. 22, but his best pitches against the Angels were his fastball and his changeup, one offsetting the other. California hitters would walk to the plate and watch him throw strikes or swing weakly and then walk back to the dugout. Zaun said that the whole day, only one hitter, Tony Phillips, complained about a ball or strike call. Mussina was just too good, spotting all of his pitches.

"At times," said Flanagan, "I've seen him have better velocity, and at times better movement. But he always has location."

Jim Edmonds was his 11th strikeout, leading off the ninth inning, and the crowd booed, thinking that the called strike three was out of the strike zone. The next hitter, Angels right fielder Tim Salmon, walked up to the plate and said to Zaun, "It's too bad they're booing, because this guy is pitching a great game."

Like that's something new. Since July 13, Mussina is 6-2 with a 1.55 ERA, and he's allowed just 52 hits and one homer in 69 2/3 innings. He could've easily racked up a couple of more wins with more run support; the Orioles have scored a total of nine runs in his last five starts.

Nevertheless, he continues to win, and with six starts remaining, he has an outside chance at 20 victories -- an extraordinary accomplishment in a strike-shortened season.

Can he get out J. T. Snow? Sure, he can get out J. T. Snow. Right now, he's getting everybody out.

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