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Mussina, Maddux, Schilling lead pitching's old guard

Posted: Tuesday April 25, 2006 12:03PM; Updated: Tuesday April 25, 2006 1:23PM
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Mike Mussina hasn't posted an ERA below 4.00 since 2003, but he's 2-1 with a 2.67 ERA so far this season.
Mike Mussina hasn't posted an ERA below 4.00 since 2003, but he's 2-1 with a 2.67 ERA so far this season.
Ron Scheffler/US Presswire
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I walked up to Mike Mussina recently and told him he looked like Greg Maddux last week while shutting down a hot-hitting Toronto team.

"Maddux?'' Mussina said. "He's got about a hundred more wins than I do."

"Yes," I told him, "but you looked like Maddux because when hitters thought you'd throw something hard, you went softer. Over and over again."

"That's right," Mussina said. "I've figured something out."

Mussina then began to tell me a story that helped explain not only why he dominated the Blue Jays in that game but also why the oldest pitchers in baseball are still among the best pitchers in baseball. Felix Hernandez, Dontrelle Willis, Justin Verlander and the young guns will have to wait. The old guard isn't giving up its grip on the game.

It's one of the more fascinating story lines of April, right there with the curious increase in home runs, the dominance of Albert Pujols, the comeback of Jim Thome and the rise of previously underappreciated Chris Shelton and Jonny Gomes. The 10 active pitchers with the most wins entering this season were a combined 23-11 after Monday's games. They are Maddux (4-0), Tom Glavine (2-2), Randy Johnson (3-2), David Wells (0-1 and on the DL), Mussina (2-1), Jamie Moyer (0-2), Pedro Martinez (4-0), Curt Schilling (4-0), Kenny Rogers (3-2) and John Smoltz (1-1). And that group doesn't even include Roger Clemens, who is likely to earn $10 million to make about 15 starts for the Astros, Yankees, Red Sox or Rangers.

Maddux, who turned 40 this month, and Schilling, who turns 40 later this year, each won their first four starts for the first time in their careers.

We're talking about a group of pitchers who have survived the single greatest and most extended run of slugging the game ever has known. They've survived smaller ballparks, shrinking strike zones, steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, maple bats, harder baseballs and a quantum leap in training methods for hitters, especially the use of video, which is used even between at-bats. All of those anti-pitching developments grew during the arc of these pitchers' careers. Never has there been a more difficult environment to pitch in than the one these guys have experienced over the past 15 to 20 years.

All of those 10 pitchers, with the exception of the lumpy Wells, who is breaking down and close to being done, have maintained, in general, the same body composition over the years that has enabled them to repeat their delivery -- the key to consistency. They also have been fortunate enough to stay away from major arm injuries (except for an elbow injury to Smoltz in 1994). Further, in addition to being physically talented, they all have exhibited an ability to adapt, a skill that gains even more of a premium as a player ages. Mussina offered the latest example.

"I threw in an intrasquad game in spring training,'' Mussina said. "People were like, 'Why are you pitching in an intrasquad game?' Really, the only reason why I did was that you back everything up from the start of the season, counting five days between starts, and five days before my first spring training start happened to be a day when we had an intrasquad game.