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Orioles' Ace in the Hole

May. 23, 2000

Mussina: Shaking off a possible free-agent sign and a 1-6 start will be tough, but Mike Mussina has the stuff to do it, foes and O's friends agree

Texas Rangers designated hitter David Segui hears the question about his ex-teammate and muffles a laugh: Is Mike Mussina the same pitcher this year as last?

Only the night before, the highest percentage pitcher in Orioles history had stonewalled the Rangers' lineup on six hits and two earned runs while dealing them his second complete game in three weeks. Mussina walked no one and by pitching coach Sammy Ellis' count was guilty of only a handful of mistake pitches -- two scorched for outs, one that Rafael Palmeiro mangled for an upper-deck bases-empty home run and another that Jason McDonald pulled for a double.

And Mussina lost.

"Are you kidding me?" replied Segui, held hitless in the Rangers' 2-1 Saturday win over Mussina and his slumping team. "He was making pitches when he needed to all night. Is he the same guy? Yes, he's definitely the same guy."

"That was a performance a [Greg] Maddux or a [Tom] Glavine would have been proud of," said Ellis, referring to the Atlanta aces who own six combined Cy Young Awards. "We'll take that every time, add it up at the end and see what we've got."

But "the same guy" who last season went 7-1 in his first 10 starts despite a higher ERA now finds himself dealing with a 1-6 beginning to the most important season of his10-year career, a season that ultimately will determine whether he remains with his original organization or goes elsewhere to reiterate his status as one of the game's elite pitchers.

Mussina has won at least 13 games in each of his nine full major-league seasons despite interruptions caused by labor strife or injuries. But the past two months have taken a toll on the centerpiece of his reputation -- the third-highest win percentage ever among pitchers with at least 200 career decisions. Mussina entered the season 136-66, a .673 percentage, but his 10 starts have dropped him to .655 and fourth on the list.

"Is his contract on his mind? I'm sure it is or he wouldn't be human," said Ellis, who also hasn't dared to ask.

Eight years have passed since Ellis saw something similar as pitching coordinator with the Chicago Cubs. Maddux was entering his final season before free agency and exceeded the team's deadline by a day before accepting its offer of a multi-year extension. When he notified Tribune Co. executives of his acceptance, Maddux was told the deal was off the table. He promptly insured his arm with Lloyd's of London, didn't worry about negotiating, won his first Cy Young Award with the '92 Cubs and then turned down more money from the New York Yankees to sign with the Braves.

Were he a mercenary, many believe Mussina's current malaise would be easier to dismiss. But because Mussina prefers to remain with the Orioles (at market value), he wonders whether his rough start may prevent majority owner Peter Angelos from abridging the $24 million that separates the Orioles' five-year, $60 million offer and Mussina's six-year request.

Mussina has yet to suggest a stoppage in negotiations but has insisted he would tell agent Arn Tellem to halt negotiations should he feel a drag on his performance.

Ellis and broadcaster, 167-game winner and Mussina confidant Mike Flanagan, meanwhile, saw a noticeably more upbeat pitcher between Mussina's previous start at Camden Yards -- a seven-inning outing against Boston that turned ugly after he left -- and Saturday's game. Able to spot a fastball that too often wandered over the plate's middle third during his first eight starts, Mussina is again sound mechanically.

Referring to Mussina's Saturday loss, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said, "He pitched as good a game as he has in a long time. I guarantee that if he pitches eight innings and allows two runs every time he goes out there, he'll win a lot of games with this club."

Projecting Mussina's first-quarter statistics, he would finish the season with more than 257 innings. He has never thrown more than243 1/3 innings in a season, causing some clubhouse observers to wonder whether he can hold up under this year's pace.

"The hardest thing now is to resist changing something else because of the fact you're not winning," said Flanagan. "Sometimes you feel you have to pitch better to get a win. The thinking is, 'I'm losing 2-1 so I've got to pitch better. I can't let them have any.' That was the rut he was in before. This is virgin territory for him. He's never had to reverse something like this."

Four starts after calling this the most difficult period of his career, Mussina has at least temporarily shut off his dealings with the media after being unfailingly available since spring training. He has done so in past seasons when concerned about making critical comments extending beyond himself.

Mussina has pitched ineffectively at times. More often, he has pitched capably, with determination and without offensive support. His 138-pitch, complete-game win over TexasApril 29 included 55 pitches after the seventh inning and was his most grueling performance since September 1995. That it remains his only victory underscores the difficulty Mussina has encountered.

Just as last season's 7-1 beginning could be partly explained by receiving an average 7.6 runs in his first 10 starts, this season's unsightly record can be partly attributed to average support of 2.7 runs. After receiving his one run Saturday, Mussina watched as Scott Erickson received three in the first inning Sunday. The Orioles have produced only 3.07 runs per nine innings for Mussina, third-worst in the league.

Flanagan also believes it's not "a reach" to suggest that stalled negotiations over a contact extension contribute to his frustration. But Flanagan added that Mussina "wanted to have a great season for all the right reasons."

"Of course Moose knows he's a free agent. But I really don't think that influences his performance," Flanagan said. "I think it influences him the day after when he looks at 1-6 and wonders about getting out of this hole. What he needs to remember is Scotty Erickson was 1-8 last season and then won 14 of 18."

Unlike Erickson during his troubles, Mussina has assumed a huge workload.

He leads the American League in innings pitched, pitches thrown and batters faced.

Mussina devours books and crossword puzzles. The Stanford grad can also add and realizes that being five games under .500 means he will likely reach the All-Star break with nothing better than a break-even record.

"He can't let that bother him," said Flanagan, a two-time Orioles pitching coach. "Moose knows he's throwing the ball well, but he doesn't have anything to show for it. Wins and records are how he has been defined. He always has been governed by percentages. He knows with 10 starts, he has 22 or so left. If he wins 60 percent, he's looking at 12 or 13 more wins. He's very realistic about what he can do and what his track record is."


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