When it was finally done and right fielder Jeff Conine had squeezed the final out of the Orioles' 3-1 win over the Texas Rangers, Mike Mussina could finally feel the weight of 138 pitches and more than three weeks of frustration slip from his shoulders.
It is still April, still very early. But the circumstances that surrounded Mussina's exhausting, complete-game victory lent yesterday's win significance usually reserved for mid-September, when a manager is willing to leave a game in his best pitcher's hand beyond what is normal or even expected.
Faced with the possibility of a winless month within what he already had described as "the toughest stretch of my career," Mussina used 55 pitches to escape the eighth and ninth innings.
Along the way, he polished his aura as one of the game's elite pitchers and enjoyed the support of a manager who understands the value of one game to one irreplaceable player.
"I've stayed longer with him in situations already this year than any pitcher I've ever had, because of what he's done in the past, not counting this year," said manager Mike Hargrove.
"If I'd looked solely at what he's done this year, he probably wouldn't have started the eighth inning. But to be able to do what he's done over his career ... you've got to be very mentally tough to finish those games."
Not only did Mussina (1-2) salvage something from April, but he also pushed the Orioles to 14-9, including a nine-game winning streak at Camden Yards beginning after Opening Day.
"A relief," Mussina called his first win since last Sept. 30.
"I don't think he threw any balls down the middle of the plate," said Hargrove. "That's the kind of game you wish you could score 10 runs and relax and enjoy what you're seeing."
But this was a Mussina game, and the Orioles struggle to score three runs under those circumstances, forget 10.
Having scored a total of 13 runs in Mussina's five previous starts (compared with their 32 runs in staff mascot Pat Rapp's four starts), the Orioles took a 1-0 lead against Rangers left-handed starter Darren Oliver (0-2) on second-inning doubles by Albert Belle and Cal Ripken.
Ripken improved the lead to 2-0 lead with a sacrifice fly in the sixth that scored Delino DeShields, who had led off the inning with a double. Brady Anderson's seventh-inning double scored catcher Charles Johnson from first base for a 3-0 lead that chased Oliver.
For Mussina, who had pitched with a lead in only three of his previous 38 innings, this was a windfall. (The Orioles were still outhit, 9-6.)
Threatened with the first winless month of a 10-year career, Mussina had slogged through his previous start -- a dull 6 1/3 innings Monday that followed that morning's Oakland-to-Chicago red-eye charter.
The 8-2 loss briefly caused him to sulk over his lack of support and a 4.50 ERA. However, a positive session with pitching coach Sammy Ellis on Wednesday improved his mechanics and his outlook.
"After I pitched [Monday], I was a little irritated, but the last couple days I've been pretty good," Mussina said. "You sit around thinking about things and thinking about the big picture.
"I threw the ball well enough to win two of the first five games. I can't go out there saying, 'This game is huge; it's the biggest game I've ever pitched.' Then you're not focused on what you're doing. You're putting all of your eggs in one basket all at one time. I don't want to pitch like that."
Said Hargrove: "I don't care how long you've been successful doing what you're doing, there's a period where you have to rebuild your confidence."
Mussina faced two tests of confidence yesterday and aced both. He entered the eighth inning having thrown only 83 pitches, but was immediately bitten by two marginal defensive plays -- a flare by catcher Bill Haselman that nicked DeShields' glove for a single and a pop-up by David Lamb that Mike Bordick lost off the heel of his glove for an error.
Mussina was visibly irritated enough for Ellis to jog to the mound for a cool-down session.
Mussina then ran the count full to No. 9 hitter Luis Alicea. A walk would have loaded the bases with none out and relievers Mike Trombley and B.J. Ryan stirring.
Johnson called for a slider on the outside sliver of the plate, a pitch Mussina had fought all day. Mussina shook him off for a curveball to the left-handed hitter.
"I thought it was the last pitch he'd be looking for -- and I've got huge [guts]," Mussina said.
The curveball bit, freezing Alicea as it dropped knee-high over the middle of the plate for the inning's first out. On the next pitch, Royce Clayton bounced into an inning-ending double play.
Mussina remembered the pitch to Alicea as the game's most important. His manager shared the opinion. "I don't know many pitchers who would have the stuff to do it and have the courage to throw that pitch with a [3-0] lead."
The ninth inning began with a Chad Curtis double and a strikeout. Then Mussina thought he had struck out David Segui for the second out only to be overruled by plate umpire Mark Hirschbeck.
When Segui singled five pitches later to kill Mussina's shutout, the pitcher and the umpire exchanged words, bringing Hargrove to the mound with the right-hander's pitch count at 119.
Those remaining from the 11th-largest regular-season crowd in Camden Yards history (48,230) appreciated it. For the first time this season, the place had a playoff feel. Coincidentally, for the first time this season, it also saw Mussina at his best.
The stands booed heavily when Hargrove shuffled to the mound after Segui's hit. What they didn't know was that Hargrove had no intention of lifting his ace, but only wanted to calm him after Hirschbeck's contentious call.
Mussina has often viewed such conferences as mindless tests of his patience. This time, he appreciated his manager's presence.
"He was out there for the same reason he needed to be out there: to give me a 20-second timeout, a pep talk and try to calm me down," said the grateful pitcher.
Ruben Mateo's single put the tying run on base and Mussina's careful two-out walk of hobbled pinch hitter Rafael Palmeiro pushed the tying run to second.
Mussina couldn't help but steal a look into the dugout, where he saw his manager doing push-ups from the bench. "I'm sure it was running through his head: 'I've got to go get him; no, I'll give him a chance. I've got to go get him; no, I'll give him a chance.' "
"Most pitchers who go 140-plus pitches are a little strung out their next start. But I felt like the win today for Mike was a bigger plus than keeping his pitch count down so he would be strong for his next start," said Hargrove.
"He may be strong next time, anyway, but the benefits of him closing the game out and getting the win far outweighed the consequence in his next start."
Hargrove permitted Mussina one more left-handed hitter -- light-hitting third baseman Lamb. Four pitches later, Mussina trailed in the count, 3-1.
A pitch away from being removed, Mussina got Lamb to float a fly ball to right fielder Conine. Hargrove never saw the ball come down. When it did, Mussina stared into his right hand, feeling nothing except relief.