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More of the same: Bats fail Mussina

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- A shrug and sloped shoulders have become his constant companions.

The strange cynicism that has followed Mike Mussina this season once more could not be shaken last night at Edison International Field. One might have thought that against a team owned by Disney, Mussina might realize the fantasy of an easy win, but if this is still 2000, it must be Never-Never Land.

Mussina delivered eight effective innings against the Anaheim Angels and received a 2-1 loss in return. Stop if you've heard this before. Mussina wishes he could.

Despite converted reliever Al Levine leaving the game after four innings, the Angels contained the Orioles on seven hits with follow-up acts Mike Fyhrie, Mark Petkovsek, Mike Holtz, Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Troy Percival.

Angels rookie second baseman Adam Kennedy singled home Bentie Molina to shatter a tie game in the seventh inning only minutes after the Orioles managed their only run on a ground ball.

Barely 24 hours after raking the Angels for 10 runs, a lineup whose cleanup hitter had two home runs since June 29 fell silent.

Mussina (9-14) saw his last best chance for a win perish with Brook Fordyce's warning track fly ball in the eighth inning.

Still, he pushed on for his sixth complete game, falling to 2-1 in his last five starts despite allowing only seven earned runs in 35 innings.

There might have been more infuriating losses but none more illustrative of a season that has assured him of a losing record for the first time since his 1991 rookie year.

Mussina retired the first nine hitters he faced, benefiting from shortstop Melvin Mora's diving catch against Kennedy in the third inning.

Seemingly capable of dialing up large performances during times of team and negotiating intrigue, he threw a one-hitter at the Minnesota Twins on Aug. 1, the day after speaking out against trades that sent Mike Bordick to the New York Mets, Charles Johnson to the Chicago White Sox and B.J. Surhoff to the Atlanta Braves.

On Friday, Mussina categorized as unacceptable the club's modified six-year, $72 million contract offer. Mussina called it "the same thing" because no changes were made to the proposars annual average value or percentage of money deferred at no interest.

Then he went out last night and built upon his case for becoming a $14 million-a-year pitcher.

Mussina's first stumble came in the fourth inning. His second came in the seventh after he received his only run.

In the fourth, Darin Erstad's-leadoff single was magnified by a walk to Scott Spiezio. The extra base became huge when Mo Vaughn singled to center field.

Even with none out, Erstad never hesitated in testing Eugene Kingsale's arm. He scored without challenge, though first baseman Chris Richard helped stop the rally by cutting off the throw to erase Spiezio at third.

Mussina no longer represents a special case. Orioles starters have allowed three earned runs or fewer in 17 of the last 23 games but are only 10-8 in that span. Only 12-game winner Jose Mercedes seems to possess the talisman for offensive Support.

The Orioles ace is merely the extreme. Entering last night, the Orioles had averaged 3.4 runs in Mussina's first 30 starts and given him league-worst run support of 3.69 runs per nine innings pitched.

When Mussina isn't pitching, the Orioles average 5.4 runs per game, a number that would nearly allow Mussina's record to reverse itself.

The Orioles forced a 1-1 game in the seventh inning when Mark Lewis led off with a single, moved to third on Jerry Hairston's double and scored on Kingsale's slow-rolling grounder.

But even that rally brought frustration. Hairston reached third base with one out but went no further because left-hander Mike Holtz got Brady Anderson to pop out and Hasegawa forced a foulout from Mora.

Earlier this season, Mussina attempted several remedies, including conversations with confidante Mike Flanagan, declining interviews and experimenting with his mechanics. Eventually, a realization occurred that this was not to be his season.

Contract talks have moved at a glacial pace and Mussina recently made reference to issues that have tugged at him away from the ball-park.

At the same time, he rightfully cites his innings pitched, ERA, strikeouts and quality starts as suggestive of what should be nothing worse than a 15-win season.

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