It was then that a line drive off the bat of catcher Sandy Alomar caught Mussina just above his right eye, knocking him to the ground and opening a gash that bled profusely onto the infield grass. What appeared grisly, however, was less than critical.
The Orioles' ace suffered a laceration over his right eye, a broken nose and significant swelling. However, doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center performed X-rays that revealed no damage to Mussina's head or right eye. In other words, as bad as it was, the injury could have been far worse. Only an inch or two prevented Mussina from taking the hit flush to his eye.
Mussina was helped from the field with a 4-3 lead, but emergency reliever Arthur Rhodes lost it six pitches later on Travis Fryman's two-run homer to right-center field. Compared to the Mussina incident, the outcome was trivial. However, the linkage between Mussina's injury and the game's reversal was unmistakable.
Mussina was in the midst of a grinder's performance. He clearly lacked his sharpest command, frequently pitching high 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. Thome's homer came on an 0-2 pitch, an indication that the All-Star was groping for his control.
The Orioles returned Mussina's favor by rallying for three runs in the third inning, as B. J. Surhoff, Rafael Palmeiro and Joe Carter drove in runs. In the fourth, the Orioles took the lead against Indians starter Charles Nagy when Mike Bordick pulled his fifth home run into the left-field stands.
Bordick's shot marked the 16th consecutive game in which the Orioles have homered, one short of the team record, and gave Mussina a 4-3 lead.
Mussina began the sixth inning by retiring his eighth straight hitter, getting Brian Giles to ground to second base. Alomar reached the plate having walked and doubled to right field. After fouling a pitch, he received an outside fastball that he ripped to the mound.
Still in his follow-through, Mussina's only defense was to flinch at the last moment. The ball followed him, ricocheting to the right side of the infield. Mussina collapsed, and most in attendance forgot about the ball.
Filled with 43,039 fans, Camden Yards had rarely been this quiet. Trainer Richie Bancells rushed to Mussina, the right side of his face covered with his blood. Mussina lifted his head briefly from behind his glove to expose the wound's severity.
His teammates rushed to him from every position. Sandy Alomar, visibly affected, walked to the mound and appeared to bend over in prayer.
Mussina lay motionless for several moments as Bancells applied pressure to the area. Mussina's right eyelid appeared split. As Bancells gave assistance, the Orioles' bench remained motionless. Most stared at the floor. First base coach Carlos Bernhardt wept. Men accustomed to the bruises of a hard game could only offer shock.
Mussina eventually walked from the field with assistance from Bancells and never lost consciousness, which was an encouraging sign. He was rushed to the medical center for tests and X-rays.
Without their best pitcher, the Orioles' season would become endangered. But Mussina stands for more than his team's best arm.
In many ways, he represents a veteran team's soul.
His earlier absence this season because of a 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.
The game crumbled quickly behind Mussina. Rhodes was called upon to warm, and was given as much time as necessary to prepare. He lost the lead in six pitches when Fryman crushed his fifth home run for a 5-4 turnaround, as the Indians ended a six-game losing streak.
Before Tuesday night at Minnesota, Rhodes (2-2) owned a 21-4 record the past three seasons. Against the Twins he gave up three runs while getting only two outs and absorbed the loss in a 7-4 decision. Last night's loss gave him half as many in his past two appearances as in his previous 94.
Perhaps numbed by what happened to Mussina, the Orioles fell silent against Nagy and relievers Jose Mesa and Paul Assenmacher. They could not push a runner into scoring position for the next three innings.
The Indians came back for more in the eighth against Alan Mills and Jesse Orosco, who suddenly finds himself struggling against left-handed hitting. Mills retired the first two men he faced before walking No. 9 hitter Mike Bell. When manager Ray Miller responded by lifting Mills for Orosco, Mills kicked the first base line and flung his glove against the dugout wall while leaving the field.
Orosco barely kept the game in order.
Lofton singled and Omar Vizquel walked to load the bases. Orosco, whose role is as a specialist against left-handed hitting, has allowed eight hits in 14 at-bats by left-handers while walking as many as he has struck out (two). Facing left-handed designated hitter David Justice, Orosco threw three balls before recovering to strike out Justice swinging.
The Orioles threatened in the eighth inning when Harold Baines and Bordick singled. Indians manager replaced Mesa with Assenmacher to face Brady Anderson, who popped to shortstop to end the threat.
Palmeiro doubled off closer Mike Jackson with two outs in the ninth, but was left stranded when Carter popped to the shortstop in short left field.
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: 5/15/98