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Mike Mussina

The Orioles' righty silenced his critics by twice outdueling Randy Johnson

by Tom Verducci

 
Posted: Wed October 8, 1997

After all the champagne had been emptied—some of it gleefully so upon the media by Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina, still demonstrating his impeccable control—someone pulled back the sheath of clear plastic that draped the lockers in the Orioles' clubhouse. At the foot of Mussina's locker, safely tucked inside one of his spikes, rested one of the baseballs Mussina had thrown on Sunday while clinching Baltimore's Division Series against the Seattle Mariners. Clearly, Mussina understood this victory was a keeper.

American03.jpg (13k) The 3-1 win sent the Orioles into the American League Championship Series for a second consecutive season and Mussina into territory he had never known before, that of an elite pitcher whose brilliance had been confirmed in big-game settings. He had entered the Division Series a bit player compared with the Mariners' 6'10" ace, Randy Johnson, who would oppose him twice in five days. It was a trick worthy of David Copperfield: Mussina has the highest winning percentage among active pitchers (.682) and the third highest alltime among pitchers who have won at least 90 games, yet he was invisible in the deep shadows of rivals like Johnson. "I was happy as soon as I knew the first game was going to be in Seattle and Johnson would be pitching," Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller said after the Orioles victory on Sunday. "All the focus would be on Johnson, and Mike would rise to the challenge."

Despite his 105-49 lifetime record, Mussina has never been a 20-game winner, nor had he won a postseason game before last week. Last year he failed in four attempts at a 20th victory, including a two-inning, five-walk disaster against the first-place New York Yankees on Sept. 19. Then he started the only game Baltimore lost in the Division Series against Cleveland and was defeated in the pivotal game of the Championship Series against the Yankees. Four outs away from a 2-1 win over New York that would have put Baltimore ahead two games to one, Mussina gave up four runs in seven pitches. The questions about him lingered after he went 2-4 down the stretch this season to finish 15-8.

AMERICAN05.JPG (16k) But this time Mussina slayed the giant, outpitching Johnson twice. The Big Unit had not lost consecutive decisions in 81 starts since May 7, 1994. While Seattle was 21-5 this year in games that Johnson started against teams other than the Orioles, it was 0-5 in the games he started against Baltimore. "I don't want to say it's easier," Mussina says about sharing the marquee with Johnson, "but it alleviates some of the tension for me. Let's be honest. When you go up against Randy, people don't expect you to win. It's the same way with a Roger Clemens or a Greg Maddux. They have all the credentials."

Why not include himself in that group, too? After all, he has won games at a clip exceeded only by the Yankees' Spud Chandler (.714) and Whitey Ford (.690). "I'm not in that category," Mussina says. "I just don't feel I'm in there. All I want to do is go out and pitch and do the best that I can."

"After this," says Miller, "I think the world knows a little more how good he is."

Mussina stymied the best home run hitting team of all time and the most fearsome group of sluggers (according to slugging percentage) outside of the 1927 and '30 Yankees. In 14 innings against Mussina the Mariners scored three runs, all on solo homers. They had only four other hits against him. Mussina took Ken Griffey Jr. out of the series (0 for 6 against Mussina, 2 for 15 overall) by enticing him to chase an assortment of off-speed pitches out of the strike zone.

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What makes Mussina so difficult to hit is that he morphs the best qualities of a power pitcher and a finesse pitcher. At times he blew his fastball at 93 mph past Seattle. Other times he dropped in knuckle curves when he was behind on the count. "He has such command of all his pitches," Baltimore catcher Chris Hoiles says, "that Mike doesn't have to throw fastballs on fastball counts."

Johnson could not match Mussina's mastery, not even against the Lilliputian lineup Baltimore manager Davey Johnson daringly threw at him in Games 1 and 4. The Orioles shock troops included Jerome Walton, who started both games at first base (or only three fewer than he had started at that position previously in his nine-year career); Eric Davis, who rescheduled a chemotherapy treatment for colon cancer so he could play rightfield in Game 1; and Jeff Reboulet, an infielder who is a .244 career hitter against everyone else but a .300 terror against Johnson. While star lefthanded hitters Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and B.J. Surhoff sat, the Baltimore B team broke open Game 1 with a four-run fifth inning. It was the first time in 412 innings over 60 starts that Johnson allowed four runs in an inning. After the 9-3 win Baltimore third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. said, "Everyone talked about how we had to face Randy Johnson twice in a five-game series. Well, Mike Mussina has the same chance to influence this series as Randy Johnson has."

Davey Johnson provided a more concise bit of advice for those who had overlooked Mussina: "Hello, world? Wake up!"

The Orioles won by the same lopsided score in Game 2, before a gutsy 136-pitch effort by lefthander Jeff Fassero permitted Seattle to scrape by with a 4-2 win in Game 3, setting up the Johnson-Mussina rematch with both pitchers on short rest. The 6'1", 185-pound Mussina is affectionately called Moose because of his surname, not because of his strength. He had a 5.25 career ERA on three days' rest before the fourth game and grumbled last year about having to make several turns on short rest. "This situation," he said last weekend, "is totally different. It's a one-time deal. You can let it all hang out."

The Orioles scored two runs in their first at bat of Game 4, including one on a home run by the 175-pound Reboulet, who has swatted two of his 14 lifetime dingers off Johnson. Mussina gave back one of those runs on a leadoff homer by Edgar Martinez in the second inning. One walk and one out later, Rob Ducey blooped a single into centerfield. The Mariners didn't get another hit as Mussina (who lasted seven innings), Armando Benitez and Randy Myers shut them down. Soon after the last out, the 48,766 fans at Camden Yards turned the place into one big Moose Lodge, calling out Mussina's nickname in salute.

Inside the Seattle clubhouse Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez sat facing into his locker for 10 minutes, weeping. At last he composed himself enough to concede, "The way he pitched, you could have had Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in there, and it wouldn't have mattered. We truly didn't believe Baltimore could beat us. We didn't expect Cy Young to pitch two great games against us."

In the Baltimore clubhouse Mussina turned some of the celebratory champagne on those who had questioned his worthiness. When he appeared at a news conference, he cut off a reporter's question about pitching in big games and snapped, "Doesn't mean anything to me. It means something to you."

Said Davey Johnson, "I think everybody can put to rest that Mike never pitched a big game."

It had been Mussina who on May 8 in Camden Yards had stopped a 16-game winning streak by Johnson. "With the national media there," Miller says, "he had a look in his eye, like, Not in my house." When Mussina was scheduled to face Clemens in his final regular-season tune-up, Miller held him out because he feared that Mussina would be so competitive that he would overwork himself trying to outpitch Clemens.

Mussina's coronation as a member of pitching royalty was completed in a quiet moment in the Baltimore clubhouse. Dressed in black, Griffey entered to congratulate the Orioles and acknowledge the man most responsible for keeping the game's best player out of the World Series for a ninth straight season. Griffey now has four hits in 36 career at bats (.111) against Mussina. The contemporaries—both graduated from high school 10 years ago—embraced. Griffey, 27, told Mussina, 28, he would see him at a shoe-company junket this winter. "Bring your golf clubs," Griffey said, "and your checkbook."

"He'll take my money, too," Mussina said later. "He'll get in a few more rounds before me. I'll gladly give him a head start."

Issue date: October 13, 1997



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