Four starts after his career literally flashed above his eyes, Mike Mussina offered something as unique as it was dazzling last night.
Benefiting from three home runs and faultless defense, Mussina did more than defeat the New York Mets, 7-2. Not only did he hold the Mets to two hits -- back-to-back second-inning home runs by Brian McRae and Butch Huskey -- he never pitched from the stretch, a phenomenon typically reserved for perfect games.
Mussina retired the last 22 hitters he faced and never dealt with a base runner, walking none against seven strikeouts. Pressed for a comparison, he reached to last May's one-hitter against the Cleveland Indians. Five days before he had complained about having no idea of his pitches' location. Last night it was the Mets with no clue.
"I never pitched from the stretch. I was never concerned with how many outs there were and where runners were. I just kept stepping on the rubber and pitching," Mussina said.
Normally a strikeout-fly ball pitcher, Mussina needed only three outfield putouts while getting 17 groundouts.
"It's just fun to watch him performing because it makes everybody else better, including me," said manager Ray Miller.
AHis only mistakes briefly left him trailing 2-1. The Mets did not manage a base runner before or after. Mussina finished with a complete game, his sixth win, 111 pitches and an exclamation mark to a return his team desperately needs.
"This is only one game. I wouldn't evaluate my status on only one game," Mussina said. "We'll see what I do in a month in a stretch of four or five games. I'll see how I feel after that."
The Orioles gave Mussina (6-4) enough support on home runs by Rafael Palmeiro, Cal Ripken and Chris Hoiles. It was Hoiles' first blast in just over two months. For Ripken, it marked the continuation of a gradual offensive awakening.
Uncompromising with himself, Mussina had been critical of his performance in three starts since returning from the disabled list with injuries related to the May 14 line drive that broke his nose and opened a gash above his right eye. In those three starts he was 1-2 with 23 hits and 15 earned runs allowed in 16 innings pitched, lifting his ERA from 2.52 to 3.95. (Mussina had allowed 10 earned runs in his first six starts combined.)
"Things go away with time. The first time I went out there, I thought, 'The last time I was out here I got hit in the head.' But I didn't think about it today. I try not to think about it ever. It's not worth thinking about," said Mussina. "What am I going to do? It's over. The only thing left is the scar on my forehead. You can't pitch scared and I don't intend to pitch scared. If I was, I'd go home."
Mussina complained about spotty command and inconsistent movement after his previous start. There was no guesswork involved this time. He rolled through seven innings on 91 pitches while refusing any ball out of the infield except for the home runs by McRae and Huskey. He struck out five and got 16 groundouts in that span.
When asked about what he had just seen, Ripken admitted surprise that Mussina had never pitched from the stretch. Another keen observer, second baseman Roberto Alomar, also admitted missing it. Only outfielders Eric Davis and Rich Becker, witnesses to perfect games by Tom Browning (1988) and David Wells (1998), had seen the rarity.
Mussina pitched with a greater cushion after Ripken homered into the left-field seats with one out in the fourth. It was Ripken's seventh RBI in his last 10 games after enduring 32 games with only 10 RBIs.
"Numbers are numbers. Projections are projections. Nothing more. The fact is it's still the first half," said Ripken, recently flogged for a sluggish May and June.
The Orioles, who have received two complete games in their last three, are now tempted to think what a rejoined rotation might bring them during the second half. Mussina stymied the National League team except for two offspeed pitches that were punished for home runs. Had the outcome against McRae been different with two outs in the second, Mussina would have made a run at true perfection.
"He never pitched out of the stretch all night and he threw a tremendous game. He would have won without the inconsistency of the strike zone," said Mets manager Bobby Valentine, ejected in the second inning for arguing balls and strikes.
"He was throwing real well keeping the ball on the corner. You try to get good pitches to hit, but the whole night there weren't many to swing at. Everything was a little off the plate and on the corners. He doesn't leave much over the plate," said Mets first baseman John Olerud.
Mussina became so locked in to his performance that he forgot the number of outs in the eighth inning. After striking out Rey Ordonez for the last out, Mussina turned his back and walked back up the mound.
"I struck the guy out and everybody's leaving. It must be three [outs]. I got lost. I wasn't going out there looking for more, that's for sure," Mussina said.
He conceded that plate umpire Eric Cooper provided a "nice" strike zone, something he used to precision.
Mets starter Bobby Jones (6-4) was a little less precise in his first loss since April 30. Palmeiro and Ripken reached him for home runs among his 12 hits allowed. Palmeiro's blast handed Mussina a 3-2 lead. The Mets never put the tying run on base.
Just as the Orioles have found a higher gear with Palmeiro, the first baseman's tear has coincided with Alomar landing behind him in the batting order. Miller dropped Alomar to the power slot on May 23.
Since the move, Palmeiro is batting .317 with 12 home runs and 28 RBIs in 123 at-bats.
His 22nd home run enabled Palmeiro to break a tie with Boston Red Sox first baseman and fellow pending free agent Mo Vaughn, tying Jose Canseco for fourth-most in the league. It also moved him past Cleveland Indians first baseman Jim Thome into third place in RBIs with 63. The switch has worked for Alomar also. He is hitting .386 (34-for-88) with 13 RBIs in 24 games since dropping.
"I'm not the manager and he's the one who makes out the lineup," said Alomar. "But it is easier knowing where you're going be hitting each day."
Opponent: New York Met
s Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 35
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Mets' Masato Yoshii (4-3, 3.45) vs. O's Doug Johns (2-2, Tickets: 3,100 remain
Mike Mussina struggled in his first three starts after returning from the disabled list following a line drive to the face May 14. But last night he was back to where he was before the injury:
D Opp .. .. IP ..H .. ER .. .. Res
6/6 Atl ..4 2/3 .. 8 ... 8 ... L 10-5
6/12 Tor ..5 1/3 .. 7 .. 2 ... W 9-5
6/17 NYY .. 6 .. 8 ... 5 ... L 5-3
6/22 NYM .. 9 .. 2 ... 2 ... W 7-2
Pub Date: 6/23/98