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Mussina delivers when it matters most

Oct. 2, 1997

SEATTLE -- You could almost hear the old, whispered criticisms of Mike Mussina falling hard last night, like buzz-sawed trees in a forest, during the Orioles' 9-3 victory over the Mariners in Game 1 of their Division Series at the Kingdome.

The one about Mussina being a terrific pitcher who doesn't always deliver in big games?


THE ONE ABOUT HIM BEING AN ALL-STAR not quite in the same league as Randy Johnson?


The one about him lacking the stomach to slam-dunk a tough-hitting team before a hostile sellout crowd?

Look out below!

Up here in the timber country of the Pacific Northwest, Mussina wiped out a whole forest of criticism as he pitched the Orioles to a stunningly easy victory over the Mariners and Johnson.

"Everyone was talking about Randy so much that it seemed like Mike was chopped liver or something," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said.

He was caviar last night, not chopped liver, in giving a triumphant performance that will forever serve as his answer to any suggestions that he was shaky in the clutch.

Who can say that now, or ever again?

THE ORIOLES WERE THE SHAKY ONES as they stumbled through September and came here to begin a tossup series with the dangerous Mariners, in desperate need of someone -- anyone -- to steady them and re-establish the tone of superiority that carried them all season.

Mussina did that in classic, ace-style fashion, setting a decisive tone long before the Orioles blew open the game with eight runs in the fifth and sixth.

Throwing searing fastballs and wickedly sharp breaking balls at different speeds and locations, he retired Ken Griffey on one pitch in the first, struck out the side in the second and allowed only one runner past second before the Orioles pulled away.

He wasn't quite as dominating as he was on the night he threw a near-perfect game against the Indians earlier in the season, but he was close. He struck out nine, walked none and threw 66 strikes out of 93 pitches in a brilliant display of control.

"Was anything not working for you tonight?" he was asked after the game.

"I don't think so," he said with a smile.

Taking the timing and the opposition into account, it was his greatest night as an Oriole.

"I don't know about that," he said, "but it was a lot of fun."

For one of the few times in his career, he was regarded as the "other" pitcher in what amounted to a stare-off between aces -- and to the disbelief of the largest baseball crowd in Kingdome history, he was the one who didn't blink.

THE FEARED BIG UNIT HAD LOST ONLY ONCE all season at home, but he blinked repeatedly last night as he was reduced to just a Big Malfunctioning Component, needing 100 pitches to get through five innings in which he allowed 11 baserunners and five runs.

"He just didn't have his good stuff," Mariners manager Lou Piniella said.

As Piniella turned to his bullpen in the sixth, the night belonged to Mussina and the advantage in the series belonged to the Orioles.

"When you're talking about the best right-handers in the game, Mussina is right up there," Piniella said. "When a good pitcher has his good stuff, you get what happened tonight."

After all those weeks of debate about the unfairness of forcing the Orioles to travel across the country to start the playoffs on the road after leading the American League in wins, the Orioles did what they have done all season: They rose to the occasion.

As they did against the Yankees and Braves during the season, they won the game that mattered; the game that would go a long way toward defining their season.

THIS SERIES IS FAR FROM OVER, of course, but the Mariners were reeling last night after watching Mussina knock out their ace.

Let there be no more doubt about the identity of the Orioles' ace.

Mussina took to the mound last night toting a big-game reputation that didn't match the rest of his glittering credentials -- the result of his shaky finish in 1996 -- and made it disappear in seven innings.

He had gone 2-2 last September as the Orioles drove for a wild-card berth in the playoffs, ultimately surrendering his No. 1 place in the rotation to David Wells and Scott Erickson, both of whom started ahead of him in the playoffs.

Mussina made two starts in October without getting a win, finishing with an 0-1 record and a 5.45 ERA.

After last night, that frustrating finish was reduced to just a distant memory, not a legacy.

HIS PERFORMANCE WAS SO OVERWHELMINGLY STRONG that many in the disappointed crowd applauded as he left the game in the eighth. He had come out to warm up before manager Davey Johnson decided to pull him and save him for a possible start in Game 4 on Sunday.

Mussina's teammates mobbed him as he reached the dugout, with the Kingdome half empty now and the shattering cheers of the first innings reduced to no more than a few waves of minor shouts.

The Big Unit was in the clubhouse, showered and dressed and nursing the pain of a devastating defeat.

Mussina pulled off his glove and smiled, and the night was inscribed with his name.

Some chopped liver.


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