No Jordan, but Mussina's a lot like Mike


Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro was only half-kidding when he suggested Mike Mussina is "like our Michael Jordan."

Mussina quickly put an end to such talk.

"Jordan can dominate every game," he said after yesterday's 2-0 victory over Minnesota. "I'm only playing once every five."

This is baseball, not basketball. Jordan can win with a supporting cast, but Mussina needs other leading men, even on days when the ball is in his hands.

The Orioles discovered last October that Mussina alone can't take them to the World Series. They did not pretend yesterday that his return will make them whole.

"It solves a lot, but still the bullpen " manager Ray Miller said.

The bullpen, where right-hander Terry Mathews and left-hander Norm Charlton can't be trusted. The bullpen, where the middle innings are a mess.

Mussina is the most important Oriole, and the entire city seemed to exhale yesterday, the low, rumbling cries of "Moo-oose!" filling the ballpark in the late innings.

His absence created a domino effect that toppled virtually every member of the pitching staff. His return should stabilize the rotation, and in turn, the bullpen.

Still, he's not Michael Jordan, OK?

Mathews went on the disabled list Saturday, and the Orioles can only hope that his sore right wrist is the reason he has allowed four home runs in 10 innings.

Charlton's opponents, meanwhile, are batting .362. Maybe his troubles last season weren't the fault of Seattle manager Lou Piniella, as the Orioles have suggested.

"I said I wouldn't belittle anybody. I know it's a team thing," Miller said. "But if you look at the numbers of the middle relievers, especially the veteran guys, you've got to get a little better output than you're getting.

"If you don't have to go to those guys from the sixth inning on, I can manage; from the fifth inning on, it's a [pain]; from the fourth inning, I'm killed."

The issue isn't going away -- the Orioles eventually might need a left-handed reliever to replace Charlton, and they want Sidney Ponson, a right-hander who spent last season in Double-A, to emerge as an alternative to Mathews.

Whatever, Miller's troubles should ease now.

No longer must Scott Erickson be the ace, a role that clearly does not suit him. And no longer must Jimmy Key be cast as the savior every fifth day.

Scott Kamieniecki pitches tonight in Bowie and could rejoin the rotation May 12. Doug Drabek is simply less of a concern when the other starters are pitching deep into games.

It's just a matter of picking up the dominoes -- if all goes well, Miller will resume using his relievers the way he originally planned, the way he did during the club's 10-2 start.

Can one player -- especially one pitcher -- be that important?

Well, the Orioles were 5-10 with Mussina on the DL.

"Having a guy like that stops losing streaks, gives you a great chance to win whether the team is playing well or not," Palmeiro said. "We didn't do anything today offensively, and we won the game."

Rookie left-hander Eric Milton held the Orioles to four hits, but two of them were homers by Palmeiro and Eric Davis. Mussina worked 7 2/3 scoreless innings, and Arthur Rhodes finished for his first save.

Very neat, very efficient, and now the entire bullpen will be available tomorrow night in Cleveland. Miller resisted using Armando Benitez for a fourth straight game yesterday, and also avoided going to the tired Alan Mills.

Key and Erickson will start against the Indians, the latter on three days' rest. In all, the Big Three figure to pitch five of the seven games on the road trip, which continues to Tampa Bay and Minnesota.

All signs point toward a resurgence.

All signs lead back to Mussina.

"I think one guy can be very important, but I don't necessarily think that being a starting pitcher, I can possibly be that guy," Mussina said.

"Physically, you only get to pitch so many games in a year. But the mental aspect of the game it doesn't put as much pressure on the other starters their particular day.

"The 2-3-4 guys, when there is no ace, without admitting it, they know there's more pressure on them to pitch well. Psychologically, you can help them in that way.

"I've been on the other side of the spectrum, believing you have to win every time you go out there. It's tough to pitch that way."

So, maybe now everyone will just relax. The return of a healthy Brady Anderson could provide a Mussina-like boost to the offense. Who knows? By the end of May, the Orioles could be rolling again.

Miller knows it could happen. He also knows that the Orioles could be in trouble again if their other starters keep getting knocked out early and Ponson and Nerio Rodriguez are unable to bridge the gap to the late innings.

This is baseball.

Mussina is the most important Oriole, and he'll appear in no more than 35 of the team's 162 games.

"Baseball, I don't think, is a momentum game," Miller said. "Pitching stops everything. You could say Minnesota had the momentum when they came back and won [Saturday]. But momentum got crushed when Mussina walked out there."

Michael Jordan? No, Mike Mussina.

Special in his own game, for his own team, in his own way.

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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