April 5, 2001
NEW YORK -- There was no spotlight for Mike Mussina's New York Yankees debut Thursday. Just sunlight.
No packed house for this weekday matinee in the Bronx. Just a modest 26,696 on hand to watch a modest man start a new chapter in his baseball life.
Everything about the day felt quiet but efficient. Successful yet unspectacular.
That is the way Mussina makes things feel with his steady and controlled diet of fastballs, change-ups and curves.
Even as the 32-year-old righty was baffling the Kansas City Royals 1-0 in his first major league start for anyone besides the Baltimore Orioles, there was none of that tension usually felt in such a close contest.
Mussina had a plan and stuck with it, riding Paul O'Neill's solo homer all the way to an afternoon of mow 'em down (7 2/3 innings, 5 hits, 0 BBs, 3 Ks) mastery in a game finished in a crisp 2 hours, 16 minutes.
"He's not doing the high wire act," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "He pretty much diffuses you when you're trying to mount an attack. One pitch, one out. That takes a little wind out of your sails."
It was just another day at the office for the understated if not underrated $88.5 million ace. Actually, check that. He's not an ace anymore, even if he still pitches like one.
On this team, nobody answers to that moniker. Not Roger Clemens, the five-time Cy Young winner who fired a masterpiece against the Royals here Monday. Not Andy Pettitte, the consistent lefty who cruised to an easy victory in the second game of the series. Not Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, the best postseason pitcher in the business. And for the first time in his career, not Mussina.
In this rotation, there is no pecking order in the front four. They are all peers, equally massive in their impact to the team's success.
It was one of the draws in coming here for Mussina. That he didn't have to be the man anymore. That every hope his team had of competing wouldn't rest on his brilliance.
So Mussina's stress level figures to decrease just like his ERA, now that he's pitching for the three-time defending world champions.
"There's a lot of places where I would have gone and they would have sent me out there on Opening Day and expected me to perform as an Opening Day guy and win 22 games, and the only way they have a chance is if he wins 22," Mussina said after improving his career record to 148-81. "That's not the case in this situation. Pitching behind Roger and Pettitte, two different styles back to back, it really benefits me."
But no less than it benefited the ridiculously successful Yankees, who began the season with a sweep and three beautifully pitched games to open their latest title defense.
Don't be fooled by the score. This one never even felt close.
For after Mussina wiggled his way out of a second and third, two-out situation in the second inning, the Royals didn't put a runner in scoring position the rest of the day.
The only time anyone in the stadium might have felt a little antsy was when Mike Sweeney legged out an infield hit (he looked out in the replay) and the dangerous Jermaine Dye came to the plate with two outs. Mussina went 3-0 on Dye, and you probably figured he'd give in and worry about Joe Randa.
But Mussina doesn't give in, he just gets you out. He came back with a change-up on 3-0 for a called strike and on 3-1 induced Dye into a grounder off a fastball.
There's a good reason Mussina didn't pitch like a nervous man. He wasn't. Even though he had every right to be.
"Not really," Mussina said. "I was kind of expecting (butterflies Wednesday) when I left the park, and I was expecting to be a little (nervous) coming in (Thursday), but not really. It was a nice day, a great day to play. We won the first two games, we won the series, and now it was, can we get the bonus and win all three?"
But the real bonus went to the Yankees back in November. Here they were, champions of the world four times in the past five years and they were merely able to strike a deal with the most accomplished pitcher on the open market.
Going from the Orioles -- a team that hasn't contended since 1997 -- to the Yankees would be unsettling at first for just about anyone. Even Clemens, one of the top pitchers ever, took almost a full year to feel comfortable in these gaudy surroundings.
Then there is Mussina, who seems unaffected by just about anything.
When catcher Jorge Posada -- the man lucky enough to call pitches for this accomplished staff -- was joined by Mussina in the bullpen before the game, he didn't feel any words were needed.
"We didn't say a word," Posada said. "I didn't even say hello to him. He's a hi and bye type of guy.
"He's very calm and unique and knows what he's got to do. Nothing really does bother him. You can't go over the scouting report with him because he knows what he has to do."
And on his first day in pinstripes, Mussina did exactly what he set out to do. In essence, he made an often frenzied atmosphere feel as calm as he is.
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