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Mussina legendary, not superhuman

Oct. 16, 1997

They needed him to pitch forever. Into extra innings. Into the World Series. Into a never-never land where he would have been saluted for one of the greatest pitching performances in postseason history, not viewed as a tragic hero.

The problem is, Mike Mussina couldn't pitch forever, couldn't wait for runs that never came, couldn't give any more. "How far do you want him go?" Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller asked. Indeed, what more could Mussina have done?

THIS ISN'T BASKETBALL, IN WHICH MICHAEL JORDAN can win playoff games almost by himself. This is baseball, the sport where even the most dominant pitcher needs his teammates to produce. Baseball, the most compelling, heartbreaking, mystifying sport of all.

Mussina allowed one run in 15 innings in the American League Championship Series, struck out 25, allowed only four hits and four walks. It was a performance that linked him with Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax and all the other October legends. And yet, he couldn't prevent the Orioles from losing twice.

"He pitched two of the greatest games I've ever seen in my 25 years in the game," first base coach John Stearns said yesterday after the Orioles' season ended with a 1-0 loss to Cleveland in 11 innings. "And we couldn't get it done."

Mussina allowed one hit in eight innings yesterday, one hit on three days' rest after a monster 15-strikeout, 120-pitch outing in Game 3. He was still throwing 95 mph in the eighth inning. The Orioles needed him to pitch forever. And then he was done.

It was the proper move after 108 pitches, and Randy Myers followed with two scoreless innings, vindicating manager Davey Johnson. This is baseball, the sport where bullpens are critical. Mussina wasn't going to throw 11 innings on short rest with a chance to go to the World Series, was he?

"What more could he do?" left fielder B. J. Surhoff asked, repeating the question that echoed throughout a sad, quiet clubhouse. "He didn't give up any runs. He gave up one hit. Shoot, he carried us on his back. He was fantastic."

CRIMINAL, THAT'S THE ONLY WORD TO DESCRIBE the Orioles' dismal offensive showing on a day when their star pitcher again reached for greatness. They went 0-for-12 with men in scoring position. They produced only one hit in the final four innings. They were shut out in perhaps the greatest baseball game ever played in Baltimore.

Criminal, absolutely criminal. Mussina's 25 strikeouts broke an LCS record. He also set a postseason record with 41 strikeouts in four starts. Gibson, Tom Seaver and Orel Hershiser shared the previous mark.

Mussina held opponents to a .112 batting average. He finished the postseason with a 1.24 ERA. And yet, he won fewer games in the ALCS than Brian Anderson, the Indians' 11th pitcher.

"The next person who questions Mike Mussina's ability to pitch in big games is going to have to fight me," Miller said.

Rafael Palmeiro went another step, saying: "Moose is the best pitcher in the game."

The crowd bellowed, "Mooo-ooose, Mooo-ooose," throughout the day and into the night, their chants reverberating in the cool autumn air, reaching into every corner of a city yearning for its first World Series since 1983. To think, the season ended without Mussina even getting the standing ovation he deserved.

"I'm not disappointed for him," Brady Anderson said. "I feel great for him. He proved he's truly a great pitcher in this postseason. I'm glad everyone got to see him. If there's one guy I don't feel bad for, it's Mike. In normal circumstances, he's the MVP of this series. He might have been, anyway."

TRUE TO FORM, MUSSINA REFUSED TO DWELL on his personal accomplishments afterward, saying they meant little in light of the team's failure. He entered another realm with his two victories over Randy Johnson and dominance of Cleveland, but he wasn't about to make that argument.

It was a time to reflect, a time to be philosophical.

"I think there's a lot to be said in this game that sometimes, success and failure can be determined by something very small," Mussina said. "Like a solo home run. Or a squeeze bunt. Those are very small things in the big picture. But they can end up being magnified in games like this.

"When you really look at it, we're all just grown men playing a game. And it's supposed to be fun. And I'll always know that even though we didn't win, I enjoyed myself. I enjoyed the crowds. I enjoyed the tension. I enjoyed the games. I enjoyed pitching against Randy Johnson -- one time in their place, when you couldn't hear anything.

"When you go to spring training in February, this is where you want to be. When we went to Fort Lauderdale eight months ago, this is what it was for. So when you're out there, you just need to remind yourself that this is why you played all those months."

He owns the highest winning percentage among active major-league pitchers. He's the rightful heir to a franchise rich in pitching tradition. And still, there's a certain emptiness to his glorious October.

Does it mean something to Mussina to be linked with Gibson and Koufax and all the other postseason legends?

"No," Mussina said. "Those guys usually won."


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