He was the ace of the staff, at home, in the playoffs, protecting a one-run lead.
You could argue that Mike Mussina had been building for this moment for five years.
His manager let him be the ace, and the Orioles' world fell apart.
Davey Johnson let Mussina try to pitch out of trouble in the eighth inning of Game 3 of the American League Championship Series last night at Camden Yards.
It was a deferential bow to a pitcher who had thrown brilliantly, allowing one run and four hits entering the inning.
A pitcher who had won 90 games for the Orioles over the past five seasons.
A pitcher who had sunk to No. 3 in the rotation as Scott Erickson and David Wells carried the pitching staff down the stretch and into the playoffs.
"I felt strong," Mussina said after the Yankees' 5-2 victory that silenced a sellout crowd.
"He was throwing the ball great," Johnson said.
When the Yankees' Tim Raines grounded out to Roberto Alomar for the second out in the eighth inning, Mussina had retired 10 Yankees in a row. The game had his name written all over it.
"For seven innings, it was pretty much the way you would want to write it up if you could," Mussina said. "It was really fun out there. It's a 2-1 game, it's in the playoffs, it's in your home park. It was really fun to be out there."
He had struck out Cecil Fielder twice, escaped from two jams, pitched the Yankees into a desperate corner.
The performance was his answer to the challenging notion that had surfaced in the wake of his mildly disappointing September: The notion that he wasn't a big-game pitcher.
He had clearly tired in September from the strain of pitching in Johnson's four-man rotation, but the cold, hard facts were that Erickson had gone 4-1 in September and pitched deep into each of his playoff starts and Wells had three of the O's four postseason wins going into last night.
Perhaps it was overstating the case to say that his reputation was on the line last night, but after back-to-back strong outings in the din of Yankee Stadium by Erickson and Wells, Mussina would have looked weak had he not delivered at Camden Yards.
And then he didn't.
"I came out of two of those [September] games with a lead,"
Mussina said. "I've been doing my job for the most part. I did it today except for eight pitches."
The end came so swiftly that the Orioles didn't have time to prepare their bullpen. By the time Jesse Orosco stood up and loosened up his left arm, the Yankees had the lead.
"It happened real, real fast," winning pitcher Jimmy Key said.
It started with an opposite-field double by Derek Jeter, which prompted Johnson to call the bullpen and get Orosco up.
Bernie Williams followed with a single to right, another opposite-field hit, that scored Jeter with the tying run. Mussina had hung a curveball.
"It was his first bad pitch of the ballgame," Johnson said.
Orosco still wasn't ready, and Mussina remained in the game to pitch to Tino Martinez.
Johnson let Mussina be the ace, the guy who had carried the Orioles since 1992.
He threw a fastball that Martinez lined into the left-field corner for a double. Williams ran from first to third, then came home with the go-ahead run when the Orioles' Todd Zeile threw the ball away in the infield.
Did the bizarre error distract Mussina?
"I think it probably did," he said. "A little bit. I shouldn't have let it, but I probably did. Then I made a bad pitch. So it was as much my fault as anyone else's. I'm not blaming anybody. I think I was mostly just frustrated with myself for letting it all happen with two outs."
The bad pitch was a hanging curveball to Fielder, who, after looking so horrible in his first three at-bats, swatted the ball into the left-field seats.
"It was a terrible pitch to Fielder," Johnson said.
"A ball to left, a couple hit the other way, a bad pitch and it's 5-2," Mussina said.
After the clubhouse was opened after the game, reporters camped out at Mussina's locker. He sat in a chair facing his cubicle, slowly munching from a plate of food. The reporters allowed him his space and his disappointment. No one moved.
Finally, after 10 minutes, he leaned back in his chair, took a deep breath, stood up and turned around. Time to face the music.
The questions came at him hard, and he handled them, as he almost always does.
It was one of the best nights of his career, and, then, one of the worst. He had kicked a chair on his way out of the dugout, a stunning show of emotion from a player with a legendary poker face.
"It was one of my best games," he said. "I'm just disappointed that I didn't finish."
"Maybe in a couple of days I'll feel better about it."
Pub Date: 10/12/96