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Mussina masters A's

Moose throws seven shutout innings
Oct. 13, 2001

OAKLAND -- Mike Mussina can officially call himself a Yankee now.

While his 17-11 debut season in the Bronx was an overall success, it's hard to call yourself a Yankee these days until you've tasted success in October. After all, that's why Mussina signed with the three-time defending champions, isn't it?

Each one of the starting pitchers on this Yankees team has had their own playoff moment. Andy Pettitte had his in Game 5 of the 1996 World Series. Orlando Hernandez earned his big-game reputation in Game 4 of the 1998 ALCS, when the Yankees faced a 2-1 deficit, as their 114-win season was in danger of going up in smoke. For Roger Clemens, it came last season, when he one-hit the Mariners, striking out 15 to give New York a commanding 3-1 lead over Seattle in the ALCS.

Mussina, who had pitched very well in the postseason for the Baltimore Orioles in 1996 and '97, did not have a Yankee playoff moment to call his own. Yes, he had his near-perfect game in Boston, but that was in September. To truly be considered a Yankee, you need a signature October moment that fans can reflect on whenever things are in doubt.

For Mussina, that moment came on Saturday.

Pitching in a do-or-die playoff game was probably not how Mussina envisioned his first October start for the Yankees. But here he was, his team facing an 0-2 deficit in a best-of-five series that they had never faced before, and it was up to him to make sure their season didn't end on Saturday. Seven shutout innings and one Mariano Rivera save later, the Yankees had their first playoff win of 2001, and Mussina had his moment.

"I'm sure I'm going to remember it," Mussina said. "I thought it was an exciting game. We found a way to win it, which this team has done in every championship run they've had the last five years. It was fun to be involved."

The last time Mussina pitched in the postseason was 1997, and he pitched brilliantly in all four of his starts. He won both of his ALDS games against Seattle and received two no-decisions in the ALCS, allowing just one run in 15 innings against Cleveland.

But now, in front of the largest crowd assembled in Oakland for a baseball game, Mussina had the daunting task of going head-to-head with Barry Zito, the eccentric 23-year-old A's pitcher that may have been the only guy in baseball to finish the season on a hotter streak than the Moose himself.

The two pitchers went man-for-man through the first three innings, breezing through them almost effortlessly. Mussina retired 10 of the first 11 batters he faced, but lost his no-hitter in the fourth, when he allowed back-to-back singles to Jason Giambi and Jermaine Dye. He got Eric Chavez and Jeremy Giambi on groundouts, escaping the inning with the scoreless duel intact.

Jorge Posada, the Yankee catcher that puts more pride in calling a good game than in his performance at the plate, gave Mussina the only run he would need, taking a 1-0 pitch from Zito over the left-field wall with one out in the fifth.

For Mussina and New York, that one-run lead must have felt like a 10-run cushion.

"It's pretty much been my game all year that we try to make a way to score one or two runs," Mussina said. "When I was in the fifth inning and there was a lot of game to go against a team that scores a lot of runs and hasn't lost a home game in who knows how long, I was hoping that the home run was one of a couple of runs we were going to get. But it didn't turn out that way."

Mussina retired the next eight batters, until Jeremy Giambi singled with two outs in the seventh. The next batter was Terrence Long, who had already shown the Yankees how dangerous he could be in Game 1 of the series, when he smacked two home runs at Yankee Stadium. This time, Long lined a ball past first base into the right-field corner. Giambi hustled around the bases and was waved home by third-base coach Ron Washington.

Shane Spencer, starting in right field for the first time this series, retrieved the ball and threw it to the cut-off man. Only he missed. The ball skipped over Alfonso Soriano and Tino Martinez and appeared to be heading into foul territory, where Posada wouldn't have a chance at making the tag. But Derek Jeter, who had run over from his shortstop position, chased it down like a cornerback chasing down a running back, and threw a backhanded shovel pass to Posada, who applied the tag to Giambi, ending the inning.

I just looked at (home plate umpire Kerwin Danley) to see what call he was going to make, because it was bang-bang," said Mussina, who was behind the plate at the time. "He called him out."

Mussina used 100 pitches to keep the red-hot A's off the scoreboard, leaving the game in favor of closer Mariano Rivera to begin the eighth. He allowed four hits, one walk and struck out four, retiring the side in order in four of his seven innings.

"He only threw 100 pitches, but to me it drains you," said manager Joe Torre. "This time of year, in this kind of game, I just thought he had had enough. I wanted to make sure that we got our best guy in there at the right time."

After the game, Mussina's teammates were thrilled that the "new kid on the block" was able to come through in his first postseason start for the Yankees.

"We needed him tonight and he came through," said Scott Brosius. "We were hoping not to make it quite so difficult for him and score some runs. Under these circumstances, to make one run stand up, we couldn't ask for anything more."

"With a 0-0 game and a 1-0 game, he can't make one mistake. It's so much tougher to pitch that way than with a three- or four-run lead," said Paul O'Neill. "He's not a rookie pitcher even though it's his first year here. His demeanor is so calm, he doesn't get rattled. He believes in what he's doing and he couldn't be any more confident. Everyone expected he would throw well, we just hope that one of these days we can score some runs for him and make it a little but easier."

Torre, who said before the series that he was starting Mussina in Game 3 because he felt it was the most important game of a five-game series, said he never doubted that Mussina would come up big.

"It didn't surprise me, but I wish we could have scored more than one run," Torre said. "He's been pitching like that all year. He's a big-game guy, amd I feel very fortunate to have the four guys I can throw out there. He was sensational."

Mussina has now had his moment, but one Yankee said he hopes this isn't the last of them.

"I hope he has another one next round," said Mike Stanton. "And one more the round after that."


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