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Yankees 8 @ Mariners 3

Saturday August 17, 2002

Mussina W15-6 | 7IP | 5H | 2ER | 3BB | 5K | 4.84ERA

SEATTLE -- On a day of surprising events -- Bernie Williams made an out, Rondell White got a hit -- the most welcome development was the return to form of Mike Mussina.

Oh, the Yankees' right-hander hasn't been away. In fact, he is one of only two members of New York's rotation who have not missed a start all season.

However, the real Moose surfaced Saturday. The one who makes batters cringe in frustration, the one capable of embarking on a hitless roll at any point. Not the impostor Joe Torre had been looking at for a month.

"Yeah, no question this is one he needed," the New York manager said after Saturday's 8-3 win over the Mariners, the Yanks' sixth straight victory. "No matter how long you've been doing it, you need to have your confidence reinforced when a little doubt begins to creep in."

The best possible time for that shot of confidence is after you have allowed 45 hits and 22 runs in the 22 innings of your four prior starts.

Restoring order out of that recent chaos, Mussina pitched seven innings of five-hit ball Saturday for his 15th victory of the season.

"Used to be, one good inning would make me more optimistic," he said through a thin smile. "To string together seven pretty good innings against a good club ... yes, that's reason to be optimistic.

"Maybe I am getting somewhere. And with the playoffs just around the corner, this is as good a time as any to start going in the right direction."

With injuries having alternately disabled Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Orlando Hernandez and with a fickle back always lurking behind David Wells, Mussina is the new anchor of the Yankees' rotation.

One of the season's great ironies has been Mussina's rather sparkling won-loss record (15-6) despite his frequent struggles. A profile of frustration the last two seasons as one of the Majors' least-supported pitchers, Mussina this time has profited from uncommon offensive backing.

He made Saturday's start with a 4.95 ERA. Among the 37 big-league pitchers with at least 24 starts and 10 victories, that ranked as by far the highest figure.

Although his usual loud support was again there, with four long balls mixed into New York's 13-hit attack, Mussina himself set the tone Saturday.

"He was good. He threw his best stuff consistently, and got a lot of ground balls, which is always what you look for with him," Torre said.

Catcher Jorge Posada stressed consistency, not quality of stuff, as the biggest difference in the good Mussina.

"He's just been in a funk, a mental slump more than anything," said Posada, whose two-run homer, coming in the fourth inning of a 1-0 game, was the key blow off Seattle right-hander Ryan Franklin. "Today, he got ahead of hitters and stayed ahead of them. That's why the results were better."

Mussina held the Mariners hitless through 3 2/3 innings, until Bret Boone lashed a double down the third-base line, advancing Edgar Martinez, who had hit into a force after Mark McLemore walked, to create a second-and-third jam.

Significantly, Mussina dodged the threat by retiring Ruben Sierra on a lazy fly to center.

That escape foreshadowed an even better one, in the sixth, after Ichiro Suzuki led off with a single and wheeled to third on McLemore's double.

John Olerud hit an RBI grounder to second and Martinez lifted a sacrifice fly to right to stimulate the sellout crowd, which roared as the Mariners thus pared New York's lead to 5-2.

However, the enthusiasm overlooked the fact Mussina had actually traded two outs for the two runs. At that juncture of the game, it's a trade he made gladly.

"Any time they got some guys on base, we were able to minimize the damage," he said, "and get the big out when we needed it.

"That's a good club we played against. You have to go out there and do the best you can. If you don't take your 'A' game out there, they'll be all over you."

A-to-Z, Mussina usually lands on his feet. In the last calendar year, he has won 20 of 26 decisions. This year, he is regularly getting seven runs per start, which can neutralize a lot of bad pitches.

"I was fortunate to get some runs early, and we kept adding to it," he said.

Yet, those W's feel more deserved when earned with tough, hard-nosed, merciless pitches.

"I didn't warm up very good. I was a little concerned it was going to be another struggle," Mussina said. "Then I got out there in the game and things started to fall in place. The ball had some life on it, and I was able to get off-speed pitches in there for strikes.

"It was a good day to be pitching. Some days it has fallen into place, other days it hasn't. But you've got to keep going out there trying to get better, and hoping it finally happens the way we like.

"We've been working for this for a long time," added Mussina, who always speaks in the plural to include pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. "And this is only one outing. We have to keep working.

"This is a good time to kind of rally, to have a good day against a team like the Mariners. There's more than six weeks left in the season, six more weeks to work toward the playoffs."

This was a start. A lot better than the four starts preceding it, as a mater of fact.

Notes: White's second-inning single snapped his career-long 0-for-27 drought. ... Although his 11-hit streak ended with a ground out in the third, Bernie Williams' first-inning single and eighth-inning double gave him his eighth consecutive multi-hit game, the longest such string by a Yankee since Mike Easler in 1986. ... Alfonso Soriano, John Vander Wal and Derek Jeter joined Posada with homers as the Yankees hit at least four homers for the ninth time. Posada ands Vander Wal's blows both came in the fourth, New York's 17th multi-homer inning of the year.


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