Losing pitchers everywhere, from Little League to the majors, are doomed to the same fate. They sit and stare and pick at a plate of macaroni and cheese.
Mike Mussina, the losing pitcher in the Orioles' devastating defeat in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, ate one noodle at a time last night. He was four outs away from beating the New York Yankees for the first time since May of 1993, four outs away from pitching the Orioles into a two games-to-one lead in this best-of-seven series.
The Orioles led in the eighth inning, 2-1, two outs and no one on base, and Mussina had retired 10 straight hitters. And then it all came apart.
"In a stretch of seven or eight pitches," Mussina said mournfully, "all of a sudden the game was lost."
The Yankees won, 5-2, Jimmy Key allowing only one hit in his last seven innings for the victory. A capacity crowd of 48,635 fans, who came to Camden Yards armed with signs and nets and anti-umpire paraphernalia, departed as Mussina had departed, dejected and stunned.
He was so close to beating the Yankees for the first time since May 26, 1993, but then, Mussina said later, he's played New York enough to never take anything for granted.
Still, nothing had occurred that would suggest an Orioles' defeat. Todd Zeile hit a two-run homer in the first inning, Mussina had pitched past the continuing series of defensive mistakes by his infield, and the Orioles led 2-1 in the eighth.
Joe Girardi hit a deep fly to left and Tim Raines grounded to short. Mussina wouldn't retire another hitter. "I felt fine," he said later. "I was pitching as well as I have in a long time."
Mussina had thrown 100 pitches and was nearing his danger zone. This year, opponents have batted .217 against him when he's thrown between 76 and 90 pitches, .250 between 91 and 105 pitches -- and .344 in pitches 106-120.
But there was no indication he was losing his stuff. Mussina threw a fastball away to Derek Jeter, and Jeter slashed a double into the right-field corner.
Orioles manager Davey Johnson thought about going to the mound, asking Mussina how he felt and reminding him that if he felt poorly, Mussina could pitch around Bernie Williams and then Johnson could bring in left-hander Jesse Orosco to pitch to Tino Martinez. Johnson thought better of it; no sense in upsetting his ace, when he was pitching so well.
Mussina threw a hanging curve to Williams, who slapped it into left field. Jeter scored, and the game was tied. "Bernie," Cecil Fielder said later, "has been hot as a firecracker."
Pitching coach Pat Dobson went to the mound to give Mussina a moment to rest, before he pitched to Martinez. Even if the Orioles wanted to bring in Orosco now, he wasn't warmed up yet, and Johnson wanted to give Mussina a chance to hang on. He'd earned it.
Mussina fell behind 1-0, and came back with a fastball on the outside corner, and Martinez punched a line drive into the left-field corner. B. J. Surhoff hustled and cut the ball off before it got to the wall and threw homeward. Williams had stopped at third, as Zeile cut the ball off near the bag.
Zeile whirled, prepared to throw to second to get Martinez. Instantly realizing he had no shot, he stopped his throwing motion. But the ball squirted out of his hand, rolling toward the shortstop hole, and Williams broke for home. "It was a bizarre play," Zeile said. "I felt it slip out. I could feel it roll off my fingers."
Shortstop Cal Ripken scrambled to retrieve the ball and fling it homeward, but not in time to get Williams at home. Yankees piled out of the dugout, their tiny, frenzied shouts of joy sounding like happy mice in the huge and silent Orioles' house.
Johnson could've called for Orosco then, but why would he? Fielder was next, Fielder, who has never been able to hit Mussina: Six hits in 39 at-bats, with 13 strikeouts.
"In that situation," Fielder said, "with Tino on second base, I was just trying to hit the ball hard back up the middle."
The circumstances, Mussina acknowledged later, the blown lead, may have distracted him. He threw a curveball, a hanger, and Fielder walloped it over the left-field wall, and the Yankees danced and celebrated some more in front of the dugout. Mussina, finished, stalked off the mound and wiped out a chair as he headed for the clubhouse.
Winning pitchers don't pick at macaroni and cheese in the postseason. They are invited to post-game news conferences, hailed, receive high-fives from teammates. Jimmy Key knows, after shutting down the Orioles.
The Orioles employed the same strategy against Key that they've used against every left-hander with a good changeup over the last five weeks: The right-handed hitters crowded home, their feet within inches of the plate, daring him to throw fastballs over the inside half of the strike zone. This way, too, they could better reach Key's changeup as it faded away.
The Orioles quickly took the lead in the first. Brady Anderson broke his bat hitting a soft liner to right for a leadoff single. Key threw a first-pitch strike to Zeile, then hung a slider and Zeile whacked it 10 rows deep into the left-field stands.
In the deep and hollow left field of Yankee Stadium, Tim Raines might've had a shot at catching Zeile's liner. Not so in Camden Yards. When Key saw the ball disappear into the joyous crowd, he turned and grimaced disgustedly at catcher Joe Girardi -- That's a home run?
Incredibly, the Orioles would have only two more runners the whole night, on a ground single by Surhoff in the second and an Eddie Murray walk in the fifth.
They did wait patiently. They did make him throw a lot of pitches. They got ahead in the count. They waited for him to give in and throw those meaty pitches.
But Key never surrendered to them. Even when the Orioles were ahead in the count -- and most of them were -- he threw his pitches. Of the first 18 hitters Key faced, 11 got into so-called hitters' counts, two balls and no strikes or 3-1 or 3-0. And of those 11, only one, Anderson leading off the game, got a hit.
"That's Jimmy Key," said Chris Hoiles. "It just seems like everything was just out of reach, or you were just behind [in swinging] or just ahead."
Johnson said: "He's got great touch. He'll sink it, he'll run it, he'll add, he'll subtract. Unbelievable."
As was Mussina. For 7 2/3 innings, anyway.
After the game, Johnson sought Mussina and asked him about the situation in the eighth. Would you mind, Johnson asked, if I came to the mound to talk? What would you prefer?
Mussina told him to visit the mound, if he felt the need.
"I wanted to know," Johnson said, "for future reference."
For Game 7, or for the World Series. Or for 1997.
Pub Date: 10/12/96