ARLINGTON, Texas -- Yesterday's bad news was that the Orioles were beaten badly by the Texas Rangers. The good news was that the pain didn't extend to Mike Mussina's elbow.
Pushed back five days by an unsettling bone spur, the Orioles' intended Opening Day starter made his much-anticipated first appearance. A 9-3 loss to the Rangers before 36,156 at The Ballpark in Arlington wasn't the hoped-for result, but at least Mussina could scratch his head without discomfort.
"My elbow's fine. It didn't bother me at all," Mussina said after a rough-and-tumble four-inning outing that began the Orioles' fall from the undefeated. "I was probably a little apprehensive because I hadn't cut loose in a long time. The thought was running through my mind. I don't feel anything now."
The Orioles felt relief. The sensation will grow if Mussina wakes this morning without swelling in the elbow.
As upbeat as the Orioles could feel after their 4-0 start, Mussina's status remained a potential downer. Without him, the possibility of a piecemeal rotation jeopardizing a dominant bullpen becomes a real distraction. Already, the Orioles wait expectantly for tomorrow's day off as the bullpen has worked 19 1/3 innings.
Mussina struggled immediately, as six of the first seven hitters reached base. He trailed 1-0 when No. 3 hitter Rusty Greer scored Mark McLemore with the first of his four hits, a double into the right-field corner. Greer later scored on Lee Stevens' one-out double. Mike Devereaux completed the breakout with a two-run single. Mussina needed 29 pitches to escape the inning.
"I was probably a little apprehensive," he said. "I hadn't cut loose in a long time."
Mussina's eventful second inning allowed the Rangers to push their lead to 5-1 when Dean Palmer followed Greer's two-out double with an RBI single. Mussina had thrown 50 pitches, half his prescribed allotment, to get six outs. "I pitched really, really bad. I expected to be a little bit rusty. I knew I wouldn't be sharp. [But] I was hoping for a little better than it turned out," Mussina said.
Missing was location on Mussina's fastball. Too often he found himself trailing in counts, contributing to 10 base runners against him. Though Mussina did not throw any breaking balls during last Thursday's 10-minute side session, his command of off-speed pitches yesterday actually was better than his fastball.
Yesterday's hard numbers were somewhat softened by an absence of pain in the elbow. Mussina admitted he was so concerned what might happen that it affected his mechanics. His arm lagged behind his body and his release was often too low, causing him to push the ball. Still, a mental burden was lifted. "I feel much better than I did 24 hours ago," he said.
Additionally, his preparation for Friday's start against the
Rangers should return to normal instead of the periodic long toss and one restricted bullpen session that preceded yesterday's outing.
"Every hitter was kind of an adventure. You try to do something -- get the ball in, get the ball down, get the breaking pitch over -- and it's all supposed to feel the same all the time. There's really not much you can do. The elbow was a little setback," Mussina said.
This season wasn't supposed to be easy. Seeking a three-year, $21 million contract extension, he is coming off consecutive 19-win seasons but for the first time in his career is confronting issues of soundness. The organization's tact has become noticeably wait-and-see.
"For about one day I was concerned," said Mussina. "Now that I've done everything, just being in a game situation, I'm not worried about it. But it is tough to pitch when in the back of your mind you're always wondering, "If I cut it loose, am I going to have a problem? Is it going to flare up?' You're concentrating on something else."
Failing to tie the club record for most wins to start a season, the Orioles were never fully there. They committed two errors and were handcuffed by usual Orioles victim Roger Pavlik.
After pounding 42 hits in their four wins, the Orioles never pressed Pavlik, whom they ripped three times for 13 earned runs in 13 1/3 innings last season. Pavlik blew leads of 6-1, 5-0 and 7-3 against the Orioles in 1996, but was unshakable with a first-inning, five-run cushion yesterday.
"He didn't give in. He threw strikes when he had to," said center fielder Jeffrey Hammonds, who was 0-for-4.
Pavlik retired six of seven leadoff hitters he faced. Through seven innings, Cal Ripken had accounted for three of the Orioles' four hits and both RBIs. He led off the second inning with his second home run in as many days and third of the season, a quick-exiting rip over the left-field scoreboard. Ripken didn't hit his third home run until May 17 last year, the 39th game of the season.
"It's always nice to drive the ball," said Ripken. "There's so much pressure in the game, and you put pressure on yourself when you go a long time without hitting any."
A hang-tough performance by rookie Mike Johnson allowed Johnson to rest his bullpen.
Facing his first major-league hitter, Johnson surrendered a home run to Mickey Tettleton on his fourth pitch. Rather than panic, Johnson righted himself and provided four serviceable innings, walking none allowing only one more run.
Opponent: Kansas City Royals
Site: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.
Time: 2: 05
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Jimmy Key (1-0, 0.00) vs. Royals' Kevin Appier (0-0, 3.60)
Pub Date: 4/07/97