With two outs in yesterday's eighth inning the verdict was obvious.
A Camden Yards crowd of 43,930 rose to embrace Mike Mussina, usually allergic to public displays of emotion. This time, as he yielded the mound to Arthur Rhodes, Mussina returned the deafening gesture with a wave of his right hand, the same hand that forced him to the disabled list April 17 because of a ruptured wart.
The same hand that had just locked down the Minnesota Twins in a 2-0 win.
The same hand that apparently holds a veteran team's confidence to a greater extent than previously known.
Giving a midseason performance despite making his first start in 17 days, Mussina combined with Rhodes for a three-hit shutout, the Orioles' second of the season. No longer adrift without their ace, a 16-14 record now includes reason for improvement.
"It's nice to do this at home because everybody's behind you," Mussina said. "We have been struggling a little bit. Everybody was hoping I would do well. I was just fortunate enough to do it."
By taking two of three from the Twins, the Orioles won their first series since April 12 in Detroit, four days before Mussina left a start against the Chicago White Sox with the tip of his right index finger shredded and gushing blood. It was then that he confessed to manager Ray Miller that he no longer could work effectively because resulting pain prevented him from throwing breaking pitches.
"That was probably as much emotion as I've ever seen from Moose," recalled Miller.
Without Mussina (3-2), the Orioles were a limp 5-10. The rotation entered yesterday 4-10 with an 8.08 ERA while averaging fewer than five innings in its past 17 games. Miller admitted "it seems like it's been going on for three months." The carryover onto the other starters had become obvious.
"There's a mental aspect that doesn't put as much pressure on the other starters that particular day," Mussina said. "The guys that are No. 2, 3 and 4 when there is no No. 1, there's more pressure on them to pitch well. I think psychologically you can help your team that way. If you feel you have to win every time you go out there, it's tough to pitch."
Now, Miller can line up Mussina with Jimmy Key and Scott Erickson. Bullpen madness may take the week off.
"You get three guys pitching good and all of a sudden there's no negative thoughts going around," Miller said. "I was sitting in the dugout with first-and-third in the ninth inning and you could feel the negativeness just flying out of this ballpark. My mom's turning the TV off. My wife is screaming, 'Oh, my God.' It just gets real quiet. You can almost feel the negative electricity in the ballpark.
"If you go out 10-2, it's the other way around. Everybody's laughing with their phone out talking to people."
Miller gave the bullpen phone a break yesterday. With Armando Benitez unavailable after pitching three consecutive days, Rhodes came on to get the final four outs for his first save this season and third of his career.
"I know this is a team thing, but if you look at the numbers in middle relief, 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," Miller said.
Locked in a duel with left-handed rookie and Maryland alum Eric Milton (2-3), Mussina allowed only a fourth-inning single to Todd Walker and a two-out hit in the fifth to Pat Meares. Mussina's stand made bases-empty home runs by Rafael Palmeiro and Eric Davis stand up for the club's third win in four games despite Milton's first major-league complete game. Mussina lowered his ERA to 2.52 and improved his record against Minnesota to 12-1 in 14 starts. Mussina hasn't lost to the Twins since Aug. 31, 1991, his sixth major-league start.
"That's a huge game," summed up catcher Chris Hoiles. "There was a lot of optimism there, but you really didn't know. After the first couple of innings, you knew it was the old Moose."
Based on Mussina's performance last postseason, Miller may have been the only witness not surprised by his starter's precision.
Mussina needed only 94 pitches, 57 of them strikes. The pitcher downplayed his degree of difficulty due to his ability to throw regularly during his down time despite having to cover his affected finger. Able to throw three side sessions before yesterday's start, Mussina never lost the feel for any of his assortment.
"After what I saw Mike do last fall, I don't think he will ever be able to amaze me," Miller said. "I don't think that's possible. I don't think anybody could pitch the way he did those four games."
Still awaiting his exit from the disabled list, center fielder Brady Anderson watched next to Saturday's starter, Scott Erickson.
"It was pretty funny," Anderson recalled. "Erickson and I were sitting on the bench in the eighth inning. He got the first two outs. We kind of looked at each other. I said, 'What's he going to do, hop off the DL and throw a shutout?' Erickson said. " 'What a jerk, making me look that bad.' "
Once more, the rotation looks pretty good. Fifth starter Scott JTC Kamieniecki is scheduled to leave the disabled list May 12, making the rotation whole for the first time in nearly a month.
"It gives us more confidence," Palmeiro said. "Now if we can just get Brady back, we'll be at full strength. Then we'll see what happens."
Mussina can only hope his finger holds. He felt pressure on the fingertip from the second inning on but it never split.
"We're going to manage it as it is," Mussina said. "It's going to keep healing up, I hope. Somewhere down the road we'll see how it is. I don't think it's something we can put away until the season's over. Eventually I hope I can. But I can't yet."
Still, on his walk into the home dugout, the hand felt good enough to flash to the world. The gesture may mean a world of difference.
The Orioles, who last year didn't lose their first series until May 14-15, hadn't won in six series before this past weekend:
Dates Opponent ..... O's rec.
3/31-4/2 Royals ....... (2-1)
4/3-5 Tigers .......... (3-0)
4/7-9 at Royals ....... (2-0)
4/10-12 at Tigers ..... (2-1)
4/14-16 W. Sox ........ (1-2)
4/17-19 at Rangers .... (1-2)
4/20-22 at Angels ..... (1-2)
4/24-26 A's ........... (1-2)
4/27-28 Angels ........ (0-2)
4/29-30 at W. Sox ..... (1-1)
5/1-3 Twins ........... (2-1)
Pub Date: 5/04/98