Mussina is seeking 1st win, a few runs; Lack of support tests patience of ace; Baines' slow start hurts Belle


OAKLAND, Calif. -- Mike Mussina tonight makes his fifth start of the season. It is not too early for him to measure his mood in shades of impatience.

The Orioles enter their four-game series with the Chicago White Sox with Mussina (0-1) a statistical hanger-on. He has done everything to earn a win except grab a bat as a one-man protest against the offensive blackout that has followed him in nearly each start.

"I'd be lying," he said, "if I said it wasn't eating at me."

Mussina, 3-1 last April despite a 5.90 ERA, is winless over a stretch of four starts for the first time since his last four appearances of 1998. His disposition hasn't been helped much by a 3.41 ERA built atop a league-high 31 2/3 innings, with his team scoring only eight runs in the four games before his departures. While Mussina scratches for a win, the remainder of the rotation is 6-0 with Sidney Ponson, Pat Rapp and Jose Mercedes holding two wins apiece. A no-decision or a loss tonight would represent the first time since Aug. 13-Sept. 7, 1997, that Mussina has endured five or more starts with a win.

"There are some things that are always going to be out of your control and run support is going to be one of them," he said. "I've had it go the other way before, too, and won games when I pitched terribly. But that doesn't mean it's not frustrating when you're not getting many runs."

A year ago Mussina was the rotation's only link to competence in April. His three wins were the only ones by a starter until Ponson broke through April 30. By then, the season was virtually shot, the bullpen in tatters. This season, Mussina has averaged almost eight innings per start -- a statistic that incredibly has still exposed him open to talk-show critique -- and walked only five against 22 strikeouts. The only blight has been his five home runs allowed, including two in his Opening Day start against the Cleveland Indians.

"I feel like I've pitched pretty well except for one inning," said Mussina, referring to a three-run first inning surrendered to the Kansas City Royals April 13. "It would be a much more frustrating situation if we were losing all these games, but in a couple cases we've come back to tie things up."

Mussina didn't suffer his second loss last season until May 28 after he had won seven of his first 10 starts. He finished the season with five wins in his last seven starts, all Orioles wins. His ERA was never this low after his third start.

"Wins and losses can be one of the least accurate reflections on how somebody pitches, especially in this day and age," said Mussina. "You can pitch terribly and win 10-8 or you can pitch great and lose 3-1. In '96 I was within two outs of winning 20 [games] and it was the worst year of my career."

No one has asked Mussina to apologize for his first four starts and Mussina isn't offering any.

"Give me eight more sets of four like I've just had and I'll take it -- in a heartbeat," he said.

In the White Sox, Mussina faces one of only three American League teams he does not own a career winning record against. In 1998, he ruptured a blister in a May start against them and landed on the disabled list for the first of two times. Last season, he took a Brook Fordyce line drive to his right shoulder and was put on the disabled list for three weeks. The absence likely cost him his first 20-win season.

Protection for Belle

Easter Sunday gave rise to two frantic searches, one for the Easter Bunny and the other for a pitch for Albert Belle to hit.

Belle, who last season walked 100 times for the first time in his career, entered last night's game batting .304 with a .438 on-base percentage. Belle had accepted 12 walks and been hit three times while opposing pitchers chose to attack designated hitter Harold Baines behind him.

"There's not a whole lot you can do about it," said manager Mike Hargrove. "When Harold starts swinging the bat the way he can, they'll come in there more often. But Albert has to realize as a hitter there are certain things he can do to take away a pitcher who's trying to pitch around him."

Belle has so far exhibited patience. Tagged as a slow starter, Belle has driven the ball more consistently than last April. His fourth-inning single off rookie left-hander Mike Mulder last night gave him only his third RBI in eight games since he began the season with 10 RBIs in 34 at-bats.

After a sluggish start, Baines has begun to warm in the No. 5 spot. Hargrove remains reluctant to shuffle a lineup that entered last night batting .309. "I think people play better when they know their spots in the lineup and their roles are defined," said Hargrove. "As far as finding somebody to hit behind Albert, I think we have the people in place to do that."

Myers' cramps recede

Backup catcher Greg Myers experienced less discomfort in his right hand after having to leave Saturday's game with cramping in his forearm.

Myers had to leave the ninth inning of a 4-3 game when the cramps forced his hand to clench. His thumb became immobilized because of pain.

"I've never had anything like that before. Hopefully, it's a one-time thing," said Myers, who reported suffering a mild recurrence after returning to the team hotel following the game.

The Orioles can ill afford a lengthy loss of Myers. Willie Morales remains out with a hyperextended left elbow and is not eligible to come off the disabled list until May 3.

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