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Wise guys (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday April 25, 2006 12:03PM; Updated: Tuesday April 25, 2006 1:23PM
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Greg Maddux has won his first four starts for the first time in his illustrious career.
Greg Maddux has won his first four starts for the first time in his illustrious career.
AP
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"So I'm pitching in this intrasquad game and [Jorge] Posada is up. The count is 3 and 2 and I throw a changeup. Now for some reason, Posada is right on the pitch and he smokes it. Hits it on a line. We got him out, but I was surprised that he would be right on a 3-and-2 change.

"So after the game I asked him, 'How could you be right on that changeup I threw you?' He said, 'I saw your fingers on top of the ball as it was coming out of your hand. I could tell it was a changeup.'"

What Posada saw were Mussina's index, middle and ring fingers splayed across the top of the baseball, a grip that makes it impossible for a pitcher to throw anything but an off-speed pitch. (Only two fingers, the index and middle, top the ball for a fastball.) Posada saw the dead giveaway, kept his hands and weight back and timed the changeup perfectly.

Mussina is 37 years old and has been pitching in the major leagues since 1991. No one had ever told him what Posada told him. So Mussina decided to change his grip. He slid his index finger more to the side of the ball than the top of the ball -- not quite the grip for a circle changeup, in which the thumb and index finger form a circle on the side of the ball, but a modified version of it.

The pitch worked perfectly. Not only was Mussina able to disguise the pitch, but he also was able to throw it slower and generate better downward movement on it. "It doesn't so much run,'' Mussina said, referring to the sideways motion some pitchers get from their changeup, "but it just kind of dies at the end. It tumbles under the hitter's bat. And to think if I didn't bother pitching in an intrasquad game, none of this would have happened."

Mussina baffled the Blue Jays with the changeup, allowing only one run while pitching into the eighth inning. It was only the second time in his past 37 starts -- the first time since last June -- that Mussina pitched into the eighth inning and allowed one or no runs. Suddenly it looks like Mussina, who had been on a slow decline the past few years, can, as Yankees manager Joe Torre said, "pitch as long as he wants to pitch." Just like Maddux.

Then there is Schilling, a power pitcher who never will be confused with Maddux. That doesn't mean Schilling has not adapted. Indeed, after running his record to 4-0, Schilling admitted that he no longer cranks up his fastball at full velocity -- not until he needs it, anyway. He struck out Travis Lee of Tampa Bay on a 95-mph heater, but generally cruised through his six innings against the Devil Rays in the low 90s.

When Schilling was at his physical peak, no pitcher threw more straight fastballs over the heart of the plate and still got them past hitters than Schilling. His fastball was that hard and had that much late life. Schilling also was renowned for keeping his electric stuff through the late innings of games. At 39, Schilling is smart enough to stay out of the middle of the plate for the most part.

"Now I know I can get my fastball to the corners at 94 instead of giving up two feet of location at 97,'' Schilling said. "That's a great feeling."

Only eight pitchers ever have won 20 games in a season at age 39 or older: Early Wynn, Gaylord Perry, Eddie Plank, Warren Spahn, Pete Alexander, Moyer, Phil Niekro and Cy Young. Schilling and Maddux, among the masters of a generation still going strong, are proving they can't be counted out.


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