February 27, 2002
TAMPA, Fla., Feb. 26 — Mike Mussina does not have a name for it. It is not a groove, not a wave, not a zone. Whatever it is, it is discussed in almost sacred terms. It is elusive, Mussina knows, and he lost it when the season ended last fall. Now he wants it back.
"Once you get hold of it, you've got to try to hang on to it," Mussina, the right-handed Yankees pitcher, said today. "Don't take it for granted. You've got to figure out: `Why am I throwing the ball this way? What am I doing right?' It's always kind of floating around out there. You just have to keep chasing it."
For Mussina, the chase has begun anew. As he prepares for his second season with the Yankees, Mussina is trying to recapture the touch he had at the end of last season. In his final 13 starts, from Aug. 12 through Game 5 of the World Series on Nov. 1, Mussina was 8-2 with a 1.63 earned run average. In seven of those games, he did not allow an earned run. "He's got very good command of all his pitches, and he was in one of those grooves where, basically, he was able to put the ball where he wanted to," Mel Stottlemyre, the Yankees' pitching coach, said. "He's got an excellent assortment of pitches, and he had all his pitches working."
By the end of the postseason, Mussina had started 38 games over all, matching his career high. Physically, he said, it was a long year. But mentally, Mussina was having fun, and he could have kept pitching.
"Sometimes you wish the season wouldn't end, because you've figured it out," he said. "For whatever reason, you know how to get it done that year.
"But every year is different. You have to go out there and try to find it again, figure out what works for you and what doesn't work for you. Every year you go out there, you're a year older than you were before. So you're constantly working on it, constantly trying to find it again."
Mussina, who will start for the Yankees when they open their exhibition schedule against the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday, is hardly running out of time. He is 33 and has five years remaining on his contract. If Mussina can find what he had at the end of last season, he might stumble onto something even harder to obtain.
In the last 10 seasons, only Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson have won more games than Mussina, who is 160-87 in that span. But Maddux, Glavine and Johnson have won a total of nine Cy Young awards over the last decade, with eight 20-victory seasons among them. Mussina has not won the Cy Young or 20 games in a season.
"I'm not disappointed at all with the way I've thrown the ball over 10 or 11 years," said Mussina, who pitched for the Orioles for 10 years before signing with the Yankees as a free agent in November 2000. "I don't have to take home awards to feel like I've performed to the best of my ability."
Mussina was 17-11 during the regular season last year, even though the offense produced only 4.5 runs a game for him. The Yankees averaged at least two more runs a game for his teammates Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. When assessing his performance, Mussina took account of the bad luck and other factors and said he was pleased.
"I think I threw the ball about as well as I can," Mussina said. "Last year was one of my two or three best years, probably. I was that pleased with the way I threw the ball over the whole year, adding in the fact I was changing teams and moving to a different situation."
Stottlemyre said he noticed that Mussina became more comfortable as the season went on. The feeling has followed him into spring training this year.
"He probably felt a whole lot more comfortable with our ball club as the season progressed, and he's definitely more comfortable this year," Stottlemyre said. "He's not a really noisy guy anyway, but just the way he goes about his work, the way he reacts to things, is a little different."
Mussina was not sure he would like New York before he signed, and he sometimes seemed uncomfortable with the news media scrutiny. And although Mussina was vague about whether he spoke to the free agent first baseman Jason Giambi over the winter, Giambi said Mussina gave him a positive report.
"He said there's only one place to play," Giambi said, "and that it's in New York."
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