Orioles can't afford ace to turn up loser


OK, everyone who wagered that the Orioles would experience first place at some point in 2000, get out your wallets.

The club's best chance probably came yesterday, on Opening Day at Camden Yards, with Mike Mussina pitching and all five teams in the American League East starting from scratch.

An Opening Day win gave the Orioles their only whiff of first on their way to a fourth-place finish last season, and this year's team is going to have to prove itself superior to last year's before anyone believes it.

But the worst part of yesterday's 4-1 loss to the Indians wasn't the blown shot at getting at least one night's sleep on top of the AL East.

The worst part was losing with Mussina on the mound.

Make no mistake, that's the cardinal sin for a team with as many starting pitching questions as the Orioles.

Every team always needs to win when its ace is pitching, but the Orioles really need to this year if they're going to accomplish anything at all.

With Scott Erickson on the disabled list, Sidney Ponson struggling, Jason Johnson in Triple-A and career minor-leaguers filling the last two slots in the rotation, Mussina's starts are precious commodities, almost must-win endeavors.

They're the one day in five when the Orioles are a playoff team, the one day when the club should win and usually does.

If the Orioles can't win even then, they're in trouble.

A year ago, they were 21-10 when Mussina pitched and 57-74 when he didn't. For those scoring at home, that's a .677 winning percentage with Mussina and .435 without him.

With even more questions behind Mussina in the rotation this year, a loss such as yesterday's represents a chunk taken out of the club's already-thin margin for error.

"You hate to see an opportunity like that slip by," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said yesterday.

Not just because Mussina pitched. He also pitched brilliantly, limiting the Indians to two hits through seven innings and the first two outs in the eighth.

True, the two hits he'd allowed were homers, and the Indians scored twice with two out in the eighth, putting together four straight hits that a better defense might have denied.

"But even though the box score says I gave up four runs, I pitched a lot better than that," Mussina said. "If I knew I could take that [level of performance] for 35 straight starts, I'd take it."

It certainly was a higher level than he reached on Opening Day a year ago, when the Devil Rays knocked him around but the Orioles still won by a field goal, 10-7.

"I was much, much better today," Mussina said.

And he has an 0-1 record to show for it, thanks primarily to an offense that left five runners on base in the first two innings and a defense that couldn't match the Indians' range and playmaking ability.

With the leadoff runner on first in the bottom of the fifth, Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar grabbed a potential hit by Delino DeShields and turned it into a double play.

Then, in the bottom of the seventh, Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel made the play of the game, sprinting 30 yards into the outfield and diving headlong to catch a soft liner for the third out as the tying run steamed for the plate -- a play so fine even Orioles fans applauded.

When the Orioles failed to make their own tough plays in the top of the eighth (after making several good defensive plays earlier), it was impossible not to think back to last year, when the Orioles were 16-26 in one-run games and adept at finding ways to lose.

"A couple of inches here and there, that was the difference," Mussina said. "I thought we really played hard and competed well. It just didn't happen."

True, the Orioles were hardly a threat to repeat their wire-to-wire performance of 1997, so the first-place thing really didn't matter. And given the Indians' 9-1 record against the Orioles last year, a win yesterday was hardly a given, especially with the Indians starting Bartolo Colon and his 95 mph fastball.

"There are fastballs and really fast balls, and that was a fast ball," Hargrove said.

Yet Colon walked five in the first two innings and the Orioles only squeezed one run out of it -- their only run, it turned out.

Such squandered opportunities hurt in any game, but they hurt even more when Mussina is pitching and the Orioles all but have to win.

"You know what? I don't look at it that way, or even think that way," Mussina said yesterday. "Every year, no matter the circumstances, my job is to take care of my day. Take the ball and pitch and do my best to try to win. That's all I can do. I can't control what happens to the rest of the guys [in the rotation]."

If he continues to pitch as well as he did yesterday, the Orioles probably aren't going to make a habit of losing when he's on the mound.

But given the state of the rest of their rotation, they really can't afford to lose at all with Mussina. And if Opening Day is about beginnings, then this, in the end, was the wrong kind.

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