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Strain has Mussina guessing at his return

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina went through his usual pre-game treatments yesterday for a strained groin muscle that has kept him in the trainer's room for the past three weeks. It's still unknown whether he'll make Friday's start in Boston or give the injury more time to heal.

Mussina said he was sore yesterday, as expected. A simple act like getting dressed after the Orioles' 3-2 loss to Seattle was performed at a more deliberate pace.

The injury first surfaced during an Aug. 26 start against Tampa Bay, which he left after seven innings with the game scoreless. He again exited prematurely five nights later, in a 6-1 loss to Detroit, because of the discomfort. He had allowed only one run in seven innings.

Saturday's outing lasted only 4 2/3 innings, and included the first indications that Mussina was altering his delivery to compensate for the injury. Manager Mike Hargrove, concerned about the possible strain placed on Mussina's arm, went to the bullpen.

"I was limited in what I could do," Mussina said after the game. "I can't stride down the hill the way I want to. I'm just concerned that it's really going to go out on me, and it just got to the point where it was so aggravated every pitch that it wasn't worth pushing it any farther.

"If I get too far down the hill, trying to generate power or whatever, that's when I really feel it. I have to monitor how I throw the ball, and it's tough to pitch when you're trying to monitor yourself and feeling your way through the action and still trying to make the pitch."

Mussina has two starts remaining this season. He brought up the possibility after Saturday's game of skipping his next turn to better ensure making his final start - and perhaps his last in an Orioles uniform.

Conine healing

Jeff Conine remains day-to-day with a strained ligament behind his left ankle. Hargrove said he was hopeful that Conine would be available tonight.

Conine hasn't played since leaving the first game of Tuesday's doubleheader in Texas after one at-bat. He's unsure how the injury occurred, knowing only that it happened during the previous night's game in Anaheim.

"It's one of those subtle things that happens and just lingers," Hargrove said.

Throw something together

The season has been one of adjustments for left-hander Chuck McElroy. He first had to deal with a new team and a new city. Then came irregular use, which included twice going 12 days without pitching.

He's been getting the call more often lately, bringing more change. Admittedly more relaxed, McElroy has struck out 10 in his past 7 2/3 innings.

His velocity has improved as the season's dragged on, and McElroy said he feels stronger than during the early months.

"I'm more relaxed," he said. "When you're out there squeezing the ball, you're not throwing it the way you want. You can't play the game when you're mad or uptight."

Two weeks from completing his first season with the Orioles, McElroy isn't certain whether he fits into their 2001 plans. He rates his chances of returning at 50-50.

"I really don't know if I'll be back. I don't think anybody knows," he said.

Mora, minus miscues

Melvin Mora had another single yesterday, giving him three in eight at-bats since being lowered to fifth in the order Saturday. He also played an error-free game after committing two Friday and raised his total to 11 since being acquired on July 29.

He also made a diving catch to leave the bases loaded Friday, and went deep in the hole Saturday to field a bouncer and record the out. Flashes of brilliance at the position have been dimmed by occasional lapses.

"I think that, No. 1, Melvin Mora has to convince himself that he can play shortstop, and that's what he's trying to do," Hargrove said.

"Athletically, he can play that position. When you play the middle infield, you're going to get a lot of balls hit to you. With the range that he's shown, he gets to some that some people don't get to, and he's going to make errors on those.

"The two he made the other night, those are the first couple he's made in a while. ... And the more he plays, the more he'll become acclimated to it."

Mora could move to the outfield next season, but the Orioles continue to evaluate him as part of a double-play combination with second baseman Jerry Hairston.

"He hasn't done anything to tell us that he can't play there next year. It's certainly an option," Hargrove said.

Around the horn

Seattle's Freddy Garcia has given up seven runs in his past five starts, all on bases-empty home runs. The latest came from Greg Myers yesterday. ... Another day passed without an update on Albert Belle's physical condition. He hasn't played since Sept. 3 because of inflammation in his right hip. ... Brady Anderson tied a career high with four walks. He also did it on Aug. 4 in Tampa. ... Seattle hadn't swept a three-game series in Baltimore since Sept. 3-5, 1990.

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