NEW YORK - Mike Mussina swung helplessly at a sharp-breaking slider the other night and looked back at New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza.
"That's why I'm in the American League," Mussina said with a laugh.
Moments later, Mets left-hander Mike Hampton sent a fastball just up and in enough to get Mussina's attention again.
"There's another reason I'm in the American League," Mussina said.
Don't be fooled. Mussina can feign helplessness with the bat if he wants, but he is an above-average hitter for his position and he welcomes the opportunity to help himself at the plate. If he ends up going into the free-agent market at the end of this season, that could be a bonus for any interested National League team.
Mussina seems more interested in the near-term benefits. The offensive dimension of the game allows him to take a mental break from the intense concentration on the mound.
"You can't concentrate on one thing for three straight hours," Mussina said yesterday. "It's good to have that diversion. It breaks the game up. If you had a bad inning, you don't have to think about it. You can't think about it. You have to go up there and try to help yourself out."
Mussina hit in some tough luck on Monday night. He drove a solid line drive to left field in his first at-bat against Hampton, but right into the glove of rookie outfielder Jason Tyner. He popped up in his second at-bat. Last year, he had three hits in 11 at-bats and drove in four runs - three in a 22-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves.
No doubt, he would be an even better hitter if he was required to hit in every game he pitched.
"For us now, only getting a handful of at-bats each year, I think you just go up there and try to do the best you can," said Mussina, who will make his second interleague start on Sunday against the Philadelphia Phillies, but won't bat with the game at Oriole Park. "If every fifth day you were getting two or three plate appearances, you'd look at it differently.
"If you can consistently put the ball in play and get the bunt down when you need to, obviously that is going to be beneficial."
The veteran right-hander may have some National League teams to choose from if he enters the free-agent market in November. There already has been speculation that the Atlanta Braves will make a play for him to augment baseball's best starting rotation. Mussina, however, has maintained throughout his contract negotiations that he wants to remain in Baltimore.
Manager Mike Hargrove hinted on Wednesday night that he might consider some role changes in the club's bullpen, which apparently will lead to at least one roster move this weekend.
Though the Orioles remain high on left-handed relief prospect B. J. Ryan, he has struggled so badly that there is concern in the organization that his large upside might be inhibited if he continues to take a beating at the major-league level.
The middle relief situation has gotten so bad that the club has little to lose by taking a look at some other minor-league prospects. There likely will be a move today and the composition of the bullpen could change again early next week when right-hander Calvin Maduro returns from a brief injury rehabilitation assignment with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings.
Maduro's return could force the club to release one of its veteran middlemen, probably right-hander Al Reyes, who has allowed 10 earned runs in12 appearances.
Only Rapp stays behind
When the Orioles returned from Baltimore to resume their interleague series with the Mets, only one player did not accompany them back. Right-hander Pat Rapp was allowed to stay home to rest up for tonight's start against the Phillies.
No one would have raised an eyebrow if Hargrove had allowed Mussina and fellow unscheduled starters Scott Erickson and Sidney Ponson to break away from the team for a day, but the manager decided to keep them aboard just in case one of them was needed to fill in somewhere in an emergency.
"It's a team," said Hargrove. "I thought about [letting some guys stay home], but seeing as it's a National League game ... heaven forbid we need any of them to do anything but pitch. ... It wouldn't be prudent."
Nobody complained about the inconvenience of having to return to New York with such a slim chance of taking part in last night's game.
"It would be worse to be sitting at home watching the game in the 14th inning if a situation arose where I could get a bunt down or something," said Mussina.
Around the horn
Closer Mike Timlin had an ice pack on his left shoulder. He said he had a stiff neck from sleeping awkwardly. ... The "crowd" of 9,540 was the smallest at Shea since June 2, 1997, when 2,672 attended a makeup game with Montreal.