The Orioles have reshuffled their roster and retooled for the future, but some things never change.
When Mike Mussina takes the mound, the offense takes a hike.
And, several times lately, when Mussina takes the mound, Mussina takes a hike.
Tigers outfielder Juan Encarnacion lined a run-scoring single to left off reliever Buddy Groom with one out in the eighth to break a 1-1 tie in the deciding game of a not-very-meaningful three-game series. Detroit would break open the game in the ninth to disperse what was left of a sparse Oriole Park crowd of 33,709.
The Orioles closed out August with a 14-15 record - much better, percentage-wise, than the team's 46-58 mark before the makeover - but will open September with room to wonder what's going on with their soon-to-be free-agent pitching ace.
Mussina left a game under curious circumstances for the fourth straight start, replaced by reliever Mike Trombley to open the eighth after an impressive seven-strikeout, no-walk performance. There was no immediate explanation, but Mussina and manager Mike Hargrove would later reveal that the veteran right-hander had suffered a recurrence of the slight groin strain that forced him out of his previous start.
"I'm not 100 percent, so I think it started to affect the way I throw the baseball," Mussina said. "Better to get out of there. I felt pretty good for the most part, I just wasn't 100 percent and thought I should get out of there before I hurt it any worse."
What else can go wrong? He left his Aug. 16 start against the Chicago White Sox after just four innings because of flu symptoms and came out of his Aug. 21 game against the Royals after seven strong innings with a cracked callus on his pitching hand. His most recent time out, he gave up just four hits over seven innings before the groin tightness intervened. The strain was less severe this time, but Hargrove agreed that it would be unwise to continue.
"He was starting to have to alter his delivery to compensate for that," Hargrove said. "When you alter your delivery, only bad things can happen. I thought the best thing to do was to get him out of there before anything happened."
Mussina entered last night's game with a string of 16 innings in which he had not allowed an earned run. If his physical condition was an issue at the outset, he seemed to dispense with it quickly, striking out five of the first nine batters he faced and extending that streak to 20 innings before Tigers shortstop Deivi Cruz stroked a low line drive over the left-field fence to break the scoreless tie in the fifth.
It was Cruz's eighth home run of the year and it probably wouldn't have been more than a double anywhere but cozy Camden Yards or the tiny Metrodome in Minneapolis. The ball barely cleared the wall, but it traveled far enough to put the Tigers ahead and illustrate again how poorly Mussina has been supported by the Orioles' offense this year.
While the bases-empty home run was ending an impressive streak by Mussina, the Orioles' offense was extending an unimpressive one at his expense. The Orioles had not scored a run to benefit Mussina since the fifth inning of the Aug. 21 game against the Royals. The streak grew to 14 innings as Tigers starter Brian Moehler closed out an impressive month of August by carrying a two-hit shutout bid into the sixth.
Of course, it was just more of the same for Mussina, who already was the American League's biggest victim of non-support (3.69 runs per nine innings) before the Orioles waited more than five innings to get on the scoreboard.
"Every time I go out, I seem to go up against somebody who's throwing the ball well," Mussina said.
Moehler finally blinked in the sixth, giving up a line shot to Melvin Mora that glanced off the glove of third baseman Jose Macias and dribbled down the left-field line for a double. Mora moved up on a sacrifice bunt by Delino DeShields and tagged up to score on a fly ball by Albert Belle to even the score.
Mussina bounced back from the home run by Cruz to retire the next six batters in order and recorded the 1,500th strikeout of his career at the expense of Encarnacion in the sixth. But it was starting to look like he would have to grab a bat if he wanted to get a win.
If the frustrating circumstances of this lost season are getting the best of him, Mussina is keeping it all inside.
"There's a lot of stuff happening this year, both on and off the field," he said cryptically. 'There are some things I don't think everybody needs to know about."
The Tigers didn't know the reason for Mussina's departure, but they didn't mind seeing him go. He owns a 15-3 record against Detroit, and last night he was at his overpowering best.
"I was surprised," said catcher Brad Ausmus. "It definitely changed the complexion of the game. Nothing against Mike Trombley or the other guys, but he [Mussina] is the last guy on that team you want to face."
First baseman Dean Palmer agreed.'He was throwing pretty well," Palmer said. 'It didn't look like he was struggling to me."
The Orioles knocked Moehler out of the game in the bottom of the seventh, though he should have been out of the inning without giving up a hit. Jerry Hairston reached base on a two-out error by second baseman Damion Easley and Brady Anderson laced a double into the right-field corner to put the potential go-ahead run at third.
Moehler had given up just five hits, but manager Phil Garner still is playing out his club's long-shot chance for a wild-card playoff berth. He brought on middleman Danny Patterson, who struck out Mora to end the threat and turn it into a two-inning game.
The game turned on Encarnacion's RBI single in the eighth, but the Tigers kept the heat on the Orioles' bullpen in the ninth and took advantage of a misplay by Belle in right field to add an insurance run. Detroit would go on to score four times, but Garner still sent AL saves leader Todd Jones out to pitch the bottom of the ninth in a non-save situation.
Opponent: Cleveland Indians
Site: Jacobs Field, Cleveland
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Sidney Ponson (7-9, 5.27) vs. Indians' Chuck Finley (10-10, 4.38)