BOSTON - Mike Mussina wouldn't call it an "audition" or a "statement game." Even with yesterday's riveting 1-0 win over the Boston Red Sox possibly being his last road appearance for the Orioles, the pending free agent ace settled for calling it a win.
Mussina tied his own franchise record with 15 strikeouts in seven innings before leaving a precarious lead to his bullpen.
The 69-87 Orioles won by making a dramatic ninth-inning stand behind rookie closer Ryan Kohlmeier, who narrowly avoided his second blown save in 18 hours. With the bases loaded and no outs, left fielder Delino DeShields caught pinch hitter Brian Daubach's pop fly, then threw a strike to home to get pinch runner Bernard Gilkey, who had tagged at third. Kohlmeier then got Trot Nixon to fly out to end the game.
Mussina watched the ending from the clubhouse. Visibly pleased, he admitted adopting a detached attitude about such situations as a form of self-preservation.
"The whole year has had me on a ride. I try not to get too involved in it now. You never know what's going to happen," Mussina said.
Mussina (10-15) doesn't know what's going to happen in the next three months.
He doesn't know if he and the Orioles will agree on a five- or six-year deal that might keep him an Oriole. He doesn't know if next weekend will be his farewell to Camden Yards. But yesterday he knew that his performance had underscored a year in which nothing has come easily.
With so much said before about a season painted in various hues of frustration, Mussina laughed off any mention of yesterday as a "statement game."
"I would hope what I've done the past nine or 10 years would have spoken for itself before today," he said, having won for only the third time since his last 15-strikeout game - Aug. 1 in Minnesota. "It's just a way I try to approach every game. If I could, I'd love to pitch that way every single game. But not too many guys can. I'm just lucky to do it once in a while. Today we needed it."
In what might have been Mussina's final appearance in Orioles road gray, he gave a performance that reaffirmed his status as a dominant talent.
Pitching on seven days' rest because of a groin pull aggravated in his previous start, Mussina struck out at least 10 for the fourth time this season and a franchise-record 26th time in his career. He walked none for the fourth time in five starts, mixing only 27 balls among 107 pitches.
Mussina's strikeouts included at least one against every Red Sox starter except Darren Lewis and in every inning. He struck out the side in the third, fourth and seventh.
Of the chance that yesterday's was his final road start for the only franchise he has known, Mussina said: "I can't say it hasn't crossed my mind. I certainly hope that's not the case. But it has crossed my mind. I think the last homestand will be more than this. I certainly hope neither case - the last gray nor the last white - has happened or is about to happen."
Mussina is due to make his final start of the season Saturday night against the New York Yankees.
Sounding more conciliatory than strident, Mussina downplayed the forces that have seemingly set him on a course for free agency. "I'm still hoping I don't have to worry about it being the last time for anything. Maybe seven or eight years from now, but not this week," he said.
No matter how strange the circumstances, the game played out predictably behind Mussina. The Orioles supported him with four hits and six base runners, but threw themselves into every potential rally by attempting two bunts and four steals.
"You've got to squeeze one run out somewhere," manager Mike Hargrove said. "We tried to be as aggressive as we could. Sometimes we may have been too aggressive. But it paid off."
Shortstop Melvin Mora twice failed to execute bunts and was caught stealing on an 0-2 pitchout in the seventh inning. Publicly endorsed as next season's everyday shortstop, Mora then extended the seventh inning by boxing Scott Hatteburg's one-out double-play grounder for his 12th error, creating a bases-loaded jam for Mussina. Pitching coach Sammy Ellis trudged to the mound, but Mussina, infuriated, stalked away.
Mussina offered the best reply by striking out Darren Lewis and Rico Brogna to not only end the inning but also tie his club strikeout record set in the 1997 ALCS and Aug. 1 in Minnesota.
Mussina finally got in line for the decision in the eighth inning because the Orioles were able to barter a leadoff walk to pinch hitter Brady Anderson into a 1-0 lead charged against Red Sox starter Toma Ohka (3-6).
Running on an 0-2 pitch, pinch runner Jesus Garcia took third on Luis Matos' left-side single. Garcia scored on Eugene Kingsale's sacrifice fly to right field.
While his career win percentage has plunged from .673 to .643, Mussina has continued to climb the franchise charts for career achievement.
He has passed Dave McNally for second place in career strikeouts, become the sixth pitcher in team history to amass 2,000 innings and eclipsed Mike Cuellar, Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor to become the third-winningest pitcher in team history.