It was not an isolated incident. "Mike is inventing things out there in the middle of the game," Hoiles says. "He'll come up with something for every situation."
Mussina has such an intuitive understanding of the complexities of pitching that he taught himself the knuckle curve. In high school. "I took a regular curve and enhanced it," he says flatly. Oh.
Were he a musician, he would be one of those virtuosos who can play music before they can read it. Naturally Mussina was born in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher. He began honing his mechanics at age four. He would throw a red rubber ball against his basement wall, over the years imitating the form of the pitcher he had seen most recently on television. He might be Tom Seaver one day, Catfish Hunter the next, Jim Palmer after that. By the time he was 15, one of the basement's tin radiator covers was pocked with dents and his motion had been finely sculpted into something very much his own.
The result is a compact, smooth delivery in which Mussina never brings his hands over his head. McDonald, on the other hand, doesn't so much wind up as unfolds, one section after another, like a road map being opened. Having so many moving parts compounds the chance of something going awry before the ball has left his hand, but that is the curse of being 6'7" with size-14 feet and hands that can hold seven baseballs each.
Mussina (6'2", 185 pounds) is cut from an assembly-line mold of Hall of Fame righthanders, with Seaver (6'1", 195), Palmer (6'3", 190), Hunter (6 feet, 190), Bob Feller (6 feet, 185) and Bob Gibson (6'1", 189) among them. He has their regal bearing on the mound, too. He chose to be a pitcher, he says, because "on that given night you can control the outcome of the game more than anyone else on that field." And he has won throughout his life: a 24-4 record in high school, 25-12 at Stanford, 14-4 in the minors and 49-20 in the majors, the latter figure translating to the highest winning percentage in Oriole history (.710) and the best among all active pitchers with at least 50 decisions. He has never had a three-game losing streak in his 88-game major league career.
"The thing about Mike is, he has an uncanny ability to repeat his mechanics time in and time out in any given situation," says Ed Sprague Sr., the Oriole scout who signed Mussina. "That's why he can put the ball wherever he wants it. That's why he's so consistent."
Mussina's control is so good that Oriole pitching coach Dick Bosman has been known to sit on a stool while catching him in the bullpen between starts. Mussina's career rate of 2.04 walks per nine innings is better than those of Seaver, Hunter, Palmer or Don Drysdale. His ratio of 2.65 strikeouts to every walk is virtually the same figure Seaver took to Cooperstown.
What's most impressive is that from 60 feet, six inches, Mussina can dot the i in his autograph with any one of six pitches. He has three fastballs (a cutter, a sinker and a riser), two curveballs (a slow curve and the knuckle curve) and an astonishingly deceptive changeup that is his best pitch. The rest of the pitching population is usually content to throw all changeups on the outer third of the plate. But Mussina is so adept at spotting his changeup that Hoiles often gives a location sign when calling for the pitch, a rare practice.
"Because he's so smart, he can process information so quickly," Bosman says. "You can almost see him thinking out on the mound. It was apparent when I first saw him in Triple A [in 1990] that he was special. There was very little I needed to say to him."
On the other hand McDonald is the engine that's always in the shop. He may have come out of LSU with that great Scouting Bureau report card, but he was like the straight-A student who had learned nothing. All of his pitches in college were called from the bench. He threw 95 mph, "but you couldn't have rolled it down a pipe any straighter," Bosman says.