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 laceration above his right eye. Mussina suffered much swelling, but X-rays and an examination at University Hospital revealed no damage to the eye or his head.
Without their best pitcher, the Orioles' season would become endangered. However, Mussina's prognosis is good. 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. Everything else seems trivial when you get down to that. Everyone was worried about Mike and nothing else, period," said third base coach Sam Perlozzo.
Mussina never lost consciousness. However, 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.
"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 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."
The scene disturbed all involved, especially the Indians catcher. When Alomar reached Mussina, he apologized.
"Yeah, like you meant to do it," Mussina answered.
The incident numbed both dugouts, the umpiring crew and a crowd of 43,039. Plate umpire Drew Coble walked away from the scene, sickened. 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.
Said manager Ray Miller: "In the replay he tucked just at the last second and it kept it out of the eye socket, thank God,"
The aftershocks stayed with both clubs. Six pitches after the incident, Travis Fryman cracked a two-run homer to give the Indians a 5-4 lead that held up.
"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 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. Mussina led 4-3.
Mussina began the sixth inning by retiring his eighth straight hitter, getting Brian Giles to ground to second base. Alomar dTC 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.
"I didn't want to come in because I didn't want to see him lying there. I've never seen him like that before," said center fielder Brady Anderson, the last position player to reach the mound.
Trainer Richie Bancells rushed to Mussina, the right side of his face covered with blood. Mussina lifted his head briefly from behind his glove to expose the wound's severity. 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. 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.
In many ways, Mussina represents a veteran team's soul.
His earlier absence 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 to right-center field for a 5-4 turnaround.
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.
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