Four starts after seeing his season flash before his eyes, Mike Mussina pitched the perfect imperfect game last night. Backed by three home runs, he easily steered the Orioles to their most uplifting win of the month, a 7-2 beating of the New York Mets before 45,535 at Camden Yards.
Mussina allowed only two hits -- back-to-back, two-out home runs by outfielders Brian McRae and Butch Huskey in the second inning that 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.
"That's vintage Mussina. He's almost back to where he was," said manager Ray Miller.
"This is only one game," cautioned Mussina. "I wouldn't evaluate my status on only one game. We'll see what I do in a month in a stretch of four or five games. If I can stay consistent up until that point I'll feel pretty good about that."
Mussina's signature performance only slightly outshone a power display by Rafael Palmeiro, Cal Ripken and Chris Hoiles, each of whom homered to account for five of the Orioles' runs.
For Palmeiro, it extended a torrid streak of production.
For the awakening Ripken, it provided more evidence of an improving season.
For Hoiles, his first home run in two months -- a titanic blast deep into the left-field bleachers -- reminded him of his potential importance to a club needing more from the bottom third of its lineup.
But Mussina (6-4) hogged center stage. So into each hitter he forgot to leave the mound after striking out Rey Ordonez for the eighth inning's third out, he pitched with an unswerving focus. With Mussina retiring the final 22 hitters, the game needed only 2: 21 despite the Orioles' offensive breakout against Mets starter Bobby Jones (6-4) and two relievers.
Palmeiro, the club leader in RBIs each of the past four seasons, has never been voted into an All-Star Game and has made the event only once since coming to the American League in 1989. Sometimes accused of amassing soft numbers, he has confronted the theory this year by breathing life into a mostly ordinary attack. He is currently on pace for 134 RBIs and 47
home runs, which would represent a career high in home runs and only eight RBIs below his monster 1996 season when he established a franchise record.
The Orioles offense has risen with Palmeiro's surge. It entered last night fifth in the league in runs scored, trailing only Texas, New York, Cleveland and Seattle.
Just as the Orioles have found a higher gear with Palmeiro, the first baseman's tear has coincided with Roberto Alomar landing behind him in the batting order. Manager Ray 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.
The home run enabled Palmeiro to break a tie with Boston Red Sox first baseman and fellow pending free agent Mo Vaughn 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 move has worked for Alomar also. He is hitting .386 (34-for-88) with 13 RBIs in 24 games since dropping.
Mussina protected his new lead as if it were a windfall. In a way, it was. The Orioles had scored three runs or fewer in five of his 10 previous starts, though in Mussina's four losses the Orioles had been outscored 27-11.
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 the 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.)
Mussina complained about spotty command and inconsistent movement, especially on breaking pitches.
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 ground outs in that span.
"He never pitched out of the stretch all night and 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," said Mets first baseman John Olerud. "You try to get good pitches to hit, but the whole night there weren't many to swing at. He doesn't leave much over the plate."
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.
The Orioles pumped the lead to 5-2 in the sixth, again with Ripken as protagonist. With out out he doubled into the right-center-field gap, crossing the Mets' defensive alignment. Hoiles then singled to score Ripken.
Playing a National League team, the Orioles appeared hellbent at times to play a more aggressive style. It didn't work and at one point cost them designated hitter Harold Baines. The Orioles had one runner caught stealing, had another thrown out trying to extend a single and still another erased at the plate.
Brady Anderson led off the third inning with his second hit. He tried to manufacture a double on a ball into short left field but was cut down by shortstop Rey Ordonez. Two innings later Eric Davis led off with a single and was thrown out stealing by Mike Piazza. The inning continued to decline when Baines lined a ball to right field and pushed for a double. Two steps from the bag he grabbed his left leg and had to be helped from the field with a hamstring pull.
Joe Carter was called upon to pinch run. Alomar singled and with two outs Carter was waved home. Huskey's throw beat him easily.
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, 4.87)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