ARLINGTON, TEXAS — ARLINGTON, Texas _ What a strange year Mike Mussina is having. He's giving up more homers than ever, more walks than usual, he's constantly bickering with umpires, and in spite of all -- that, he wins.
Mussina walked four of the first 11 Texas Rangers last night, battled home plate umpire Chuck Meriwether all night over the parameters of the strike zone, and cruised to a 7-3 victory. Mussina improved his record to 10-4, and on the first night of a crucial 10-day road trip, the Orioles drew to within three games of the Yankees in the AL East.
'I think we believe as a team we can play better baseball,' said Mussina, who threw 124 pitches _ 102 fastballs _ in 6 2/3 innings. 'Since we came out 11-2, we really haven't played our best baseball. For the next 90 games, we hope to play the way we played the first dozen or so games.'
Orioles manager Davey Johnson said, 'That's the way to start (the road trip), to spank somebody.'
Cal Ripken had a homer, double and single and drove in two runs and Roberto Alomar had two doubles and a single and Mussina made big pitches when he had to, from the first inning onward.
All of his starts since early April have been like this, runners on base, Mussina on the mound having to come up with something to get through potential disaster. First inning: Mussina gave up walks to Mark McLemore and Juan Gonzalez, around a single by Will Clark, and he went to a full count on Mickey Tettleton. A walk meant a run at that point.
Mussina floated a 3-2 changeup to Tettleton, Mussina's first changeup of the game, belt high, right down the middle, and Tettleton took it for strike three. Dean Palmer grounded out to end that threat. It was, Mussina agreed later, the key point in the game for him, the turning point. 'If I walk him there,' Mussina
said, 'who knows what happens from there.'
Mussina walked another in the second, and McLemore leading off the third, and Mussina and Meriwether dueled over balls and strikes, Mussina constantly yelling in to home. No inning was simple, nothing came easy. Except, in the end, another victory.
'There really haven't been too many games when everything has really fallen into place,' said Mussina. 'It's taken a real effort to win games, sometimes as much mentally as physically.'
The Orioles' runs were not easy to come by early. Roberto Alomar doubled with two outs in the first and then violated all rules of common sense by getting thrown out stealing third, with the left-handed hitting Rafael Palmeiro at the plate. Brady
Anderson tripled with two outs in the third and Luis Polonia struck out. Anderson was hit by a pitch in the fifth _ the 11th time he's been hit this year, a career high _ and he, too, was cut down stealing.
They weren't efficient. But ultimately, they were effective, thanks to Ripken and a fair share of good fortune.
Ripken carried another streak into last night's game, besides his run of consecutive games, which reached 2,225. He homered in his last two at-bats June 21, struck out twice amid two walks Saturday, and struck out in all three of his at-bats Sunday. All or nothing: Ripken had homered or struck out in his last seven at-bats before last night.
He kept that streak alive. Two outs into the second inning, Texas starter Bobby Witt threw him a thigh-high fastball, through the eye of the strike zone. In April, Ripken might've flat missed this pitch. In May, he might've hooked it foul.
But it's June, Ripken is hot, and he ripped the fastball on a line to left, the ball reaching the stands almost instantly _ his 13th homer in his last 28 games, his 15th of the year. Ripken is on a pace to challenge his career high of 34 homers; he's on a pace to hit 33.
Alomar hit a hard smash up the middle leading off the fourth, and Rangers second baseman Mark McLemore dove. The ball hit off the tip of his glove, rolled and died in short center field, and Alomar sprinted into second base.
Witt walked Palmeiro on four pitches. Alomar tagged up and moved to third when Bobby Bonilla flied to left. Even with Ripken coming up, ranking fourth in the AL in RBI for the month of June with 23, this was not a bad situation for Witt. A slow, right-handed hitter at the plate, a pull hitter with a fair chance of hitting into a doubleplay.
Witt attacked the outside corner, trying to get Ripken to ground to the left side. He did, pulling a slow bounder _ just between third baseman Dean Palmer and shortstop Kevin Elster. Alomar scored the Orioles' second run.
But Witt's bad luck did not stop there. Alomar led off the sixth with an infield hit and moved to second on Palmeiro's hit-and-run one-hopper to first base. Bonilla also pulled a grounder to the right side, for the second out; Alomar took third.
Ripken walked on a 3-2 breaking ball just under the his chin. Witt seemed out of the inning when B.J. Surhoff hit a pop fly into short right, but the ball fell between McLemore, right fielder Juan Gonzalez and center fielder Darryl Hamilton, and Alomar scored.
Witt made another good pitch to catcher Chris Hoiles, in and on the fists, but Hoiles muscled a looping liner over shortstop. Ripken rambled home, and Witt, relieved by right-hander Gil Heredia, stalked off the mound in frustration. The Orioles had scored four runs, three on a series of bloopers and cheap hits.
The Orioles, beaten 26-7 here in April, piled it on. Mark Smith's infield single (beginital(another cheap hit)endital) loaded the bases, and facing lefty Ed Vosberg, Anderson walked to force in a run. Mike Devereaux, pinch-hitting for Polonia, singled home two more runs. Devereaux is 5-for-9 as a pinch-hitter this season.
After the Orioles finished off the Rangers, Johnson waved happily to his mother, a message. Before the game, Johnson's mother had reminded him of the last time she saw the Orioles play, the weekend Texas swept three games.
'I told her that we're not going to do that again,' Johnson said, smiling.
Opponent: Texas Rangers
Site: The Ballpark in Arlington
Time: 8:35 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' David Wells (4-6,5.46) vs. Rangers' Kevin Gross (7-5,5.26)
Pub Date: 6/25/96