The Orioles lost a ballgame last night. They can give thanks that they didn't lose more.
Witnessing an incident that made some turn away and others weep, the club watched ace Mike Mussina take a line drive to the head during the sixth inning of what became a 5-4 loss to the Cleveland Indians at Camden Yards.
The ball, hit by Indians catcher Sandy Alomar, broke Mussina's nose and left him with a gash above his right eye. Despite a great deal of swelling, X-rays and an examination at University Hospital revealed no damage to the eye or his head.
A decision will be made today whether he will require a stay on the disabled list, but initial indications are that Mussina did not suffer a concussion.
"It's his life," said third base coach Sam Perlozzo, still shaken 45 minutes after the game. "Everything else seems trivial when you get down to that. Everyone was worried about Mike and nothing else, period."
Mussina never lost consciousness, but blood gushed from the wound into the eye and his mouth, at one point gagging him.
He was transported, in uniform, by ambulance less than a mile away to the hospital.
"When I saw the ball hit Mike, I felt it in my heart. I felt for his family. That's the only thing about this sport that's very dangerous," Alomar said. "I was happy he was conscious. It was a scary moment. I've never hit somebody in the face before. My thoughts and prayers are with him."
Mussina was in the midst of a grinder's performance. He clearly lacked his sharpest command, frequently pitching high and with little feel for his breaking pitches.
Still, he managed the game after falling behind 3-0 on a two-out, two-run single by Kenny Lofton in the second inning and a one-out home run by Jim Thome in the third. The Orioles' three-run third inning and shortstop Mike Bordick's homer in the fourth gave Mussina a hard-earned 4-3 lead.
It wouldn't last. Six pitches after Mussina left, Travis Fryman hit a two-run homer off Arthur Rhodes (2-2) to turn the game.
Mussina had begun the sixth inning by getting Brian Giles to ground to second base. It was the eighth straight hitter he had retired. Alomar reached the plate having walked and doubled to right field. After fouling off a pitch, he received an outside fastball that he ripped toward the mound.
Still in his follow-through, when a pitcher is his most vulnerable, the Gold Glove pitcher's only defense was to flinch at the last moment. The ball followed Mussina, catching him flush.
"I heard it. It sounded like a ball hitting off a concrete block. It was solid," said first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, one of the first to reach the fallen Mussina. "I was hoping he would start getting up before I got there. But when I got there, he didn't even want to move."
Camden Yards fell silent. Players from both teams milled about while several members of both dugouts bowed their heads.
The scene disturbed everyone involved, especially Alomar, who, when he reached Mussina, bent over him and apologized.
"Yeah, like you were trying to do it," Mussina answered.
The incident numbed both teams, the umpires and a crowd of 43,039. Plate umpire Drew Coble walked away from the scene, sickened. He later refused to watch a replay in the umpires' dressing room. Orioles first base coach Carlos Bernhardt wept in the dugout.
"I was crying like a baby. I was praying to God that it wasn't in the eye," Bernhardt said.
Bernhardt's prayers were answered. Mussina appeared to flinch downward just before impact, possibly the difference between injury and tragedy.
"In the replay, he tucked just at the last second and it kept it out of the eye socket, thank God," said manager Ray Miller.
Trainer Richie Bancells rushed to Mussina, the right side of the pitcher's face covered with blood. Mussina lifted his head briefly from behind his glove, exposing the wound to the home dugout.
"That one was especially nasty because it hit him flush. You could hear it. You saw him go down and you knew it was not good," said Indians manager Mike Hargrove. "Obviously, the Orioles are closer to Mike, but we all have a camaraderie. It was distracting to both sides. Our guys were not real active after that, and I've never seen Sandy that upset before."
Mussina lay motionless for several moments as Bancells applied pressure to the area. The Orioles' bench remained motionless. Most stared at the floor. Men accustomed to the bruises of a hard game could only offer shock.
"As a pitcher, you know you're going to get hit. It's impossible for it not to happen at some point in your career. You just pray it doesn't get you in the head or the [pitching] hand," said fellow Orioles starter Scott Erickson.
Center fielder Brady Anderson, the last position player to reach the mound, said, "I didn't want to come in because I didn't want to see Mike lying there. I've never seen him like that before."
Given the sensation that blanketed the field, Miller asked Coble if Rhodes could warm in the bullpen. Coble granted the breach of procedure. Six pitches later, Fryman homered to turn a 4-3 deficit into a 5-4 lead. Indians starter Charles Nagy (4-2) benefited for the win.
"It was tough. I've never come in a game like that. It was a scary feeling," said Rhodes, who lost for the second time in three days.
In many ways, Mussina represents a veteran team's soul.
His earlier absence this season because of wart on his right index finger coincided with the Orioles' collapse that followed a 10-2 start. While Mussina was on the disabled list, the rotation labored to a 4-8 record and a 7.84 ERA. Before his loss, the starting pitchers were a combined 9-4 with a 3.50 ERA.
Mussina returned May 3 and the staff experienced an immediate turnaround. Entering last night's game, the rotation was 3-1 with a 2.53 ERA since.
Numbers, however, inadequately conveyed what the Orioles felt late last night.
Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 05
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Devil Rays' Wilson Alvarez (3-4, 4.12) vs. O's Jimmy Key (4-1, 2.94)
# Tickets: 700 remain
Pub Date: 5/16/98