CHICAGO -- Mike Mussina showed his manager and a chief nemesis last night that he is a changed pitcher.
No more talk about a sore right elbow. No more talk about a pitcher able to win 19 games despite a 4.81 ERA. For the second time in a week, Mussina turned a potentially destructive lineup into a heap of frustration by resembling his form of several years ago when he compiled a two-year record of 30-11 and ignited talk of the game's next dominant pitcher.
Mussina brought back those memories by pitching eight innings of a 1-0 win over Danny Darwin and the Chicago White Sox. Randy Myers pitched the ninth inning for his league-leading seventh save, but it was Mussina who controlled an icy night.
Having won 19 games each of the last two years by primarily pitching up in the strike zone, he took a scalpel to the White Sox's knees last night. Manager Davey Johnson had only seen this in spots. Mussina remembered the sensation well.
"Four years ago, I was much better at keeping the ball down," Mussina said. "Then I started being successful up and began forgetting how to stay down. Since the beginning of spring training, we've been trying to make sure the focus of pitching is down and you elevate when you want to.
"You just can't be very successful pitching up there. Whether it was really conscious or not, I've been able to keep the ball down."
Orioles broadcaster and former Orioles pitching coach Mike Flanagan called it the best curveball he'd ever seen from Mussina. The reaction from hitters verified the assessment. Frank Thomas entered the game with his brand on Mussina, whom he'd reached for a .556 average and six home runs in 36 career at-bats. Last night Thomas struggled in four hitless at-bats against Mussina. Johnson correctly called it "vintage Mussina."
"In the time I've been here, I've never seen him pound the ball down so hard by using his change and curveball and stay on the knees. When he does that, there's no better pitcher in baseball," Johnson said.
The White Sox never found an opening. They produced two of their three hits off Mussina in the first three innings. Mussina retired 16 of the last 17 hitters he faced. He needed only 103 pitches.
Mussina seemed headed for the Orioles' first complete-game 1-0 win since Aug. 2, 1995 (his own), but was lifted instead for Myers.
"Randy has been perfect, and he hasn't made a lot of mistakes. He faced some good hitters tonight that feast on left-handed pitchers. He came in and got the job done for us," said Johnson.
Myers allowed a one-out single to Tony Phillips, then ended the game by striking out Ray Durham and getting Thomas to fly out to right. It was Myers' first 1997 save while protecting a one-run cushion.
"The decision was made. I wanted to stay in and pitch, but [Johnson] gets paid to make decisions like that. Randy has been throwing the ball great, so why not go with him? I wish I had the chance to finish, but it worked out great," Mussina said.
Mussina made the cold work for him. He pitched from beneath five layers of shirts and retreated to the clubhouse between innings. Best of all, he worked efficiently. Mussina walked no one and never allowed the White Sox to place a leadoff hitter on base. He worked from the stretch against only four hitters. Only once did a runner reach scoring position -- Ozzie Guillen doubled with one out in the third but advanced no farther.
At least one person was left unfazed, however. White Sox manager Terry Bevington said, "Mussina usually pitches really good against us once a year, then we go out and get him."
Even with Mussina pitching, the Orioles were again set up for a struggle. What had been a routine scribbling of a lineup during the season's first two weeks has become a moment-to-moment exercise in this series. This time, Mussina represented a one-man answer to whatever ails his 10-3 team.
The Orioles managed nine hits against Darwin (0-1), four from center fielder Jerome Walton, a Cubs oldie who managed only 16 for all of 1996. The only run came from a player originally scheduled to watch the game from the bench.
Last night, Johnson planned to rest Eric Davis, Jeffrey Hammonds and Roberto Alomar -- until Alomar lobbied to get into the lineup.
Johnson's original lineup included Jeff Reboulet at second base. But Alomar followed Johnson to the batting cage and back into his office, pressing to start despite a sore left ankle.
Alomar scored against orders. After a one-out walk in the third, Alomar took second on Rafael Palmeiro's single. Cal Ripken followed with another hit to right field. Alomar, still limping, was told to stop by third base coach Sam Perlozzo. But because of his sore ankle, Alomar ignored him. Against right fielder Tony Phillips, Alomar scored without a slide when Phillips' puny throw went 10 feet up the third base line.
Mussina, meanwhile, pitched with the same steadiness that he brandished in his previous start, a seven-inning, three-hit effort against the Texas Rangers. Seventeen days after he was bumped from an Opening Day start with a sore elbow, Mussina pitched without second thoughts about his arm.
This was not a comfortable spot for Mussina. He struggled to a 2-2 record and 9.90 ERA against the White Sox last year. Mussina was working to even his career record against them. Mussina entered with a losing record against only three clubs. Now, make it two.
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Site: Fenway Park, Boston
Time: 6: 05
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Jimmy Key (2-0, 1.29) vs. Red Sox's Tom
Gordon (1-1, 2.75)
Pub Date: 4/18/97