Mike Mussina couldn't give the Orioles a win over the Atlanta Braves yesterday. However, in his first appearance in more than three weeks, the team's ace did deliver reassurances that he is the same pitcher who has carried the team during its best times this season.
Beaten 10-5 by Braves fifth starter Kevin Millwood (8-2) and a powerful lineup before 48,098 at Camden Yards, Mussina pitched well enough and long enough to further erode a painful memory. It was May 14 when Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar crushed a line drive off Mussina's face, leaving him with a fractured nose and more than 30 stitches above his right eye.
Mussina says he watched the replay only once. He is thankful he never saw Alomar's drive once it left the bat. Still scarred above his eye, he at least sidestepped a damaging mental picture.
"I think because I never really saw the ball and I don't have the horror of that last image in my mind of the ball just before it hit me I don't have that image to remember," he said. "It's not something I think about before every pitch I throw, which I think helps."
Alomar hit a fastball down and away. Mussina did not shy away from the spot yesterday. He routinely handled one grounder to the mound and never visibly flinched.
"If I change the way I pitch or I feel I can't go back out there because I'm afraid I'm going to get hit, then I'm going to go home," Mussina said. "I won't be any good out there pitching scared. If I felt that way I'd go home."
Mussina (4-3) was haunted more yesterday by Braves catcher Javier Lopez than any flashbacks. Lopez's two-run homer gave the Braves a 4-0 first-inning lead. He later chased Mussina with a two-out RBI single in the fifth to make the score 6-0 and finished with four hits and four RBIs.
"When Mike finds it, he holds onto it for a while," said manager Ray Miller. "He'll find it soon."
Arthur Rhodes followed in the fifth inning and was roughed for two hits that scored Mussina's two leftover runners, leaving the starter with an uncommon and somewhat misleading line: 10 strikeouts and one walk against eight earned runs.
"We were looking forward to beating these guys," said Lopez, referring to the Orioles' 4-0 record against Atlanta that dated to last year's first interleague series. "This is a big win for us."
The Braves finished with 14 hits, five for extra bases. Nine of their runs scored with two outs.
Meanwhile, the 29-32 Orioles haven't seen .500 since May 15 -- the day after Mussina was struck by Alomar's line drive. Wanting to believe themselves deep enough to compensate for Mussina's absence, the Orioles now know otherwise. The situation has further deteriorated given the loss of Jimmy Key and Scott Kamieniecki. Mussina brought back only the third spoke of a rattling wheel.
Before yesterday's loss the Orioles were 15-9 with Mussina and 14-22 with him on the disabled list. The staff's performance paints an even starker picture.
During the previous 24 games with Mussina in place, the staff allowed 0.93 hits per inning while compiling a 3.61 ERA, which would easily lead the American League. Without him, the staff has allowed 1.18 hits per inning and has been ripped for a 6.18 ERA, which would rank last by more than 0.50.
The difference is similarly dramatic when isolating the starting rotation. With Mussina as the anchor, the starters entered yesterday with a 3.27 ERA. Without him, the rotation has sagged to a 6.65 ERA. Naturally, the bullpen has suffered a corresponding drop when forced to carry a greater load.
With Kamieniecki and Key out, Mussina isn't selling his return as the catalyst for a turnaround. However, it does remove one of the floating questions that have helped sink the first two months.
Said Mussina: "No matter how well we do offensively, we're not going to be able to mash out eight, nine, 10 runs every game. If I can go out there and win some games giving up three or two runs then that's about the best I'm going to be able to do. I'll just fill my position and we'll see."
Mussina's 4 2/3 -inning start was his shortest since clearing only three innings against the New York Yankees last Sept. 7. Handicapped by a sluggish defense and a bullpen that allowed two inherited runners to score, he still found reasons for optimism.
"I don't know how to evaluate it. I'm glad I threw well for a couple inning stretch. If it had been one inning good, one inning bad, one inning good, one inning bad then that would really bother me. But I threw strikes. I wasn't behind many guys. I think I walked one guy. I'll take it. But I'm not really pleased with it at all," he said.
Mussina didn't have any trouble throwing strikes -- he walked vTC only one and threw 63 strikes among 95 pitches -- but he groped for precision. Held to two runs by Scott Erickson Friday, the Braves led 4-0 after six hitters yesterday.
Beginning a highlight game, Walt Weiss dropped an opposite-field single between three fielders to lead off the game and took second on Chipper Jones' one-out hit. Strikeouts of Keith Lockhart and Andres Galarraga pushed Mussina close to an exit, but he couldn't get past No. 5 hitter Ryan Klesko, who drilled a first-pitch curveball for a double. Sore-armed right fielder Eric Davis groped for the roller and both runners scored.
"I don't think I made a bad pitch. I don't think I made the wrong pitch. He just hit it," Mussina said.
Mussina allowed two more runs on a tenacious at-bat by Lopez. After falling behind 0-and-2, the All-Star catcher fouled off several pitches before forcing a full count. Mussina then rolled a curveball that Lopez drove to left for his 13th home run.
"I made a bunch of good pitches to Lopez. He just kept fouling them off," Mussina said. "Then he hit it out of the park."
Millwood went 6 2/3 innings before Alan Embree, Kerry Ligtenberg and Mark Wohlers divided the last seven outs. The Orioles produced six base runners the last three innings, but never got closer than 8-4. Armando Benitez allowed two runs on three consecutive ninth-inning hits. The unshakable Lopez added his fourth RBI with a two-out double.
"This [Braves] team is not just pitching," Mussina said. "Everybody looks at their rotation like the reason they've won every year is because of their staff. I don't think that's true. Their staff is an important part of their team, but if they didn't hit then the five runs we scored today would have been enough to win."
Opponent: Atlanta Braves
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 1: 35 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS, TBS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Braves' Greg Maddux (8-2, 1.85) vs. O's Doug Drabek (5-5, 5.86)
Tickets: Scattered singles remain
Shaking the rust
In the first inning yesterday, Orioles starter Mike Mussina gave up as many runs (four) as he did in his three prior starts before getting hit in the face by a line drive May 14:
Date, Opponent, IP, H, ER
5/14, Cleveland, 5 1/3 , 7, 4
5/9, Tampa Bay, 9, 5, 0
5/3, Minnesota, 7 2/3 , 2, 0
Pub Date: 6/07/98