CHICAGO -- Mike Mussina's mystery month took another turn for the strange last night. A late check-in, another instance of vanishing offense and a brutal first two innings sentenced the Orioles' ace to an 8-2 loss to the surprising Chicago White Sox.
While they continue to wait for order to be restored in their bullpen, the Orioles have to be stunned by Mussina's absence of a win with one start remaining this month.
This time Mussina was beaten by previously winless White Sox starting pitcher Cal Eldred (1-0) and rookie catcher Josh Paul while his lineup wiped the sleep from its eyes. Eldred finished with a two-hit complete game and 11 strikeouts. Paul celebrated a three-run homer and a triple. Mussina referred to the "toughest stretch" of his career. Mussina is likewise waiting for normalcy to return behind him.
The Orioles entered the game with a .301 team average. However, because of a complicated charter situation, they entered Chicago at about 5: 45 a.m.
One night after managing four hits against a rookie left-hander, they only produced two behind Mussina. Asked whether the team's late arrival may have factored in the performance, Mussina said, "Sure it did. Add to the fact that Eldred was throwing the way he was throwing and it made it tough for us. We didn't hit very much. I didn't do it pitching-wise. Put the two together and it's an 8-2 loss."
This is strange, strange stuff within an otherwise strangely successful month.
Mussina carried a career April record of 22 - 8 and 3.56 ERA into the season. A year ago he produced every win for a tattered starting rotation until April 30 en route to a second-place finish in Cy Young Award balloting. This season the rest of the rotation is 6 - 0 while he scratches for his first win within the last installment of a three-year contract. No one, especially Mussina, has yet made the connection. However, Mussina admitted irritation before the start over his predicament.
The day began badly even before the Orioles checked into their downtown hotel. A tardy team charter prevented them from getting to bed until after 7 a.m. Mussina had been given the option of flying ahead of the team on Sunday but maintained a long-standing refusal to do so.
The Orioles were scheduled to reach Chicago at 2:45 a.m. Mussina remembered stepping into his hotel room at "6-something."
"They asked me if wanted to [fly ahead]. I don't believe too much in that," said Mussina. "The nine guys playing behind me are going to get in at 6 in the morning. I don't see why if they're going to be tired why I shouldn't be in the same position. They've got to play; I've got to play. That's the way it goes," said Mussina.
Manager Mike Hargrove insisted, "I'm not going to offer that excuse. I think we gave our best effort." But upon further reflection, he conceded the late arrival offered an additional obstacle.
Before he could clear his head and determine which pitches were working for him, Mussina found himself trailing 5-1.
Jose Valentin slugged his first home run with the White Sox to tie the game in the bottom of the first inning. Chris Singleton then began the four-run second with a bunt single toward third. A rare defensive lapse by shortstop Mike Bordick worsened the jam. Rather than take the out at first on Carlos Lee's grounder, Bordick wheeled on Singleton, who had strayed beyond second base. Bordick tried to take the play himself rather than flip to DeShields but his dive missed Singleton.
Eldred never had to pitch from the stretch after DeShields was caught stealing. Johnson's home run was the only interruption in a run that saw Eldred retire 25 of his last 26 hitters.
In what looked at first glance to be a pitching mismatch, Eldred turned in one of the most dominant performances of his checkered career. His 11 strikeouts were one shy of his career best.
"He threw a lot like [Curt] Schilling," said Anderson, who had an 0-for-3 night and was doused by bleacherites running down a seventh-inning triple. "He got ahead and didn't mess around. He's got a lot of ride on his fastball."
Mussina slowly dressed afterward. As he slipped into his leather jacket and finally made a move toward the clubhouse door, he paused to think about the last 24 convoluted hours and failed to stifle a parting critique at the situation: "It's not going to be the last time it happens."