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Moose has kept Yanks loose

Oct. 19, 2001

SEATTLE His catcher said he didn't have his best stuff. His manager said he didn't have his best stuff. He even said he didn't have his best stuff.

And still, Mike Mussina impressed a guy who drove in 141 runs his season with his outing Thursday in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.

"He still pitched his butt off tonight," said Seattle's Bret Boone. "He pitched good enough to beat us."

This is why the New York Yankees signed Mussina to a six-year, $88.5 million deal this offseason. Yeah, they had Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Orlando Hernandez, but perhaps none of those big-game pitchers could do what Mike Mussina did Thursday.

The 32-year-old right-hander kept getting his best pitch a changeup that sets up his fastball and slider down in the zone, and still gave the Yankees six strong innings in their 3-2 win that gave them a 2-0 series lead in the ALCS as they head back to Yankee Stadium.

"It was a struggle; it was a fight the whole way," said Mussina, 17-11 with a 3.15 ERA for the Yankees this season. "There's always days you've got to do the best you can without feeling your best, and we found a way to do that today."

Most of Mussina's numbers Thursday belie that anything was wrong. He allowed two runs and four hits while walking one and striking out three. At one point in the game, right after a he hung a changeup that Seattle's Stan Javier smashed for a two-run homer in the fourth inning, Mussina retired nine in a row.

It's just that his "so-so" outing came after possibly the game of his life. That day, with the weight of an 0-2 series deficit and the Yankees' current dynasty on his shoulders, Mussina threw seven shutout innings in Game 3 of the Division Series at Oakland.

The 1-0 win gave the Yankees renewed hope, and they became the first team to rally to win a five-game playoff series after dropping its first two games at home. Against the A's, Mussina knew the Yankees' offense wasn't performing, and that giving up even one run might mean the game.

"As far as our starters heading back to Oakland when we were down 0-2, I think he was the perfect guy on our staff to be starting that game because of his mannerisms and his character as a person," Yankees reliever Mark Wohlers said. "He really keeps things in perspective, understands what he has to do and just executes."

Wohlers, once one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball, has had time to observe a lot this postseason while relegated deep in the Yankees' bullpen. He points out that it isn't just the playoffs that Mussina has been so tough; it's been the past several months.

Without allowing an earned run in six of his last nine starts of the season, Mussina went 6-1 with a 1.31 ERA. On Sept. 2 at Boston's Fenway Park, Mussina came within one strike of a perfect game.

He was hardly perfect Thursday, but, according to Boone, that's what made him so good.

"I think Mike's one of those guys who, if he goes out and doesn't have his best stuff, is such a good pitcher that he gets away with it," Boone said. "I don't think he had his best stuff tonight, but you can't expect to have your best stuff every night. That's like a hitter saying, 'Are you locked in?' Well, I'm not locked in every night, but the good and great hitter can find a way to get one or two hits when they're not.

"I know Mussina's the same way."

As the No. 3 starter on a team that has won four World Series titles in the past five years, Mussina has pitched through the season in virtual anonymity. Though he flirted with finishing with a .500 record, Mussina was arguably the team's best starter this season.

Yes, that could be the case even when factoring in Clemens, who went 20-3 and was 20-1 at one point. Comparing the two, Mussina had a lower ERA (3.15 to Clemens' 3.51), threw more innings (228 2/3 to 220 1/3), struck out more batters (214 to 213) while walking fewer (42 to 72) and tossed more complete games (four to 0) and shutouts (three to 0).

Don't think Mussina minds the lack of exposure, though. He was the Baltimore Orioles' ace once, but something was missing. He came to New York for one main reason.

"I think the big factor in making the decision was whether or not I thought the team had a chance to still be playing in October," he said. "And when you sit around and look at the clubs and what their possibilities were and who their core players are and what do you think their future is going to look like, I thought I still feel that this team is one of the best situations to be in."

It's a situation where, when he has a sub-standard outing, all Mussina has to do is give the Yankees six innings with the lead and hand things over to their stellar bullpen. That formula worked again for New York Wednesday, with Ramiro Mendoza and Mariano Rivera finishing things out as they have so many times.

What Yankees manager Joe Torre noticed most about his pitching Thursday, though, was what Mussina did. Even when not at his best.

"We didn't know if we were going to get past five with him, but because he pitched so effectively, the sixth was his," Torre said. "He was not as sharp as he has been, but again, nobody could stay as sharp as he was."


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