Mike Mussina is the guy who runs a 4:01 mile, who gets five of six numbers correct on his lottery ticket and who draws 20 at blackjack. No active pitcher has more often come so near to greatness without touching it than Mussina. He's baseball's answer to Michael Collins, the one astronaut aboard Apollo 11 who flew all that way to the moon and never set foot on it.
Mussina hasn't thrown a no-hitter, yet four times he has pitched a no-no into the eighth inning, including once last year, when, with two outs in the ninth, Boston's Carl Everett spoiled his bid for a perfect game. Mussina hasn't won 20 games, though he has twice had 19 victories (once in a strike-shortened season). He hasn't received the Cy Young Award, though he has finished in the top six in the voting in eight of the past 10 years. He hasn't won an ERA title, though he missed by only three earned runs last year, the eighth time in the past 10 seasons that he finished in the top eight.
Detect a pattern here? Close but no moondust. If it's possible to have a breakout year at 33 and with a won-lost record (164-92) that's nearly identical to Sandy Koufax's career mark (165-87), then New York manager Joe Torre has found the perfect candidate. "I think Moose is going to have a monster year," Torre says. "He just seems more relaxed, more settled in."
Recent high-profile additions Roger Clemens, David Wells and Chuck Knoblauch were each better in their second season with the Yankees than in their first. And Mussina, a former Oriole, had some things to find out last season. "What I learned is that around here things get done," he says. "A billboard in centerfield has a little too much white in it? The next day it's changed. A home run by Montreal that should have been a foul ball beats us? The next day the screen on the foul pole is extended down. Even in spring training George Steinbrenner saw us walking on the concrete hallway outside the clubhouse, and the next day a mile of green carpet is put down. That's what makes this place different."
However, when told of Torre's forecast for a big season, Mussina says, "Hey, if I can throw the ball any better than I did last year, I'd like to see that. I found a feeling and kept it through the second half. I knew what pitch was the right pitch to throw, where it was going and how to get it there."
Including the postseason, Mussina gave up 16 earned rims in his final 13 starts, going 8-2 with a 1.67 ERA. He fell short of that elusive 20-win season by three, even though he won either 1-0 or 2-1 a Koufaxian six times and then added another 1-0 victory in what was New York's most crucial game of the year: Game 3 of the Division Series, when the Yankees were down two games to none to the A's on the road. "You pitch in that many low-scoring games, and you're prepared for the playoffs, when runs generally are going to be hard to come by," Mussina said.
Joining Mussina, Clemens, 39, and the often overlooked Andy Pettitte, 29, in the New York rotation is Wells, 38, who has dropped 30 pounds, in part by reducing his consumption of booze and fried foods. "Except on Sundays," Wells said. "Sunday is my only day to eat crap."
Mussina should find better run support in his second season with the Yankees. Free-agent signee Jason Giambi is the first hitter since Ted Williams to have back-to-back seasons with an on-base percentage better than .475. Catcher Jorge Posada has regained strength in his right shoulder after off-season surgery. And rookie Nick Johnson, who once reached base in more than half his plate appearances in a minor league season, should upgrade what was a feeble DH slot last year; only the Angels' and the Royals' DH's had worse on-base percentages than New York's .320. "That's just the kind of hitter I've always been—I even took pitches in Little League," says Johnson, the nephew of Phillies manager Larry Bowa. "After being up last year [for 23 games], I know I have to make adjustments. I was a little too patient."
The Yankees' .334 OBP last year was their worst since 1992, their last losing season. As that efficiency rises, Mussina should find a better comfort level in pinstripes and, just maybe, the kind of greatness he has never known.
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