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Quiet Mussina looks to silence Diamondbacks

Saturday, October 27, 2001

PHOENIX — Mike Mussina has endured 11 sometimes endless summers waiting to stand on the mound in Game 1 of the World Series, his fingers gripping the baseball in the precise way required for the knuckle-curve, October's promised land awaiting his arrival.

Mussina might be mean and surly, and gives off an energy so negative it's sometimes hard to believe he loves the Yankee experience. At least that was true between April and September. Now, however, Mussina has entered a new reality and the right-hander isn't embarrassed to say, "It's something we all want to do.

"We all went to camp in Florida or Arizona way back in February. We all wanted to be standing here with a chance to win a title," Mussina said. "Obviously, I'm excited, I'm thrilled."

If this sounds storybookish … well, it is, and not even Mussina will dispute it. In a postseason that's full of irresistible plots — like the Yankees emerging as New York's spiritual healers since Sept.Ÿ11 — Mussina's flight from the mediocrity at Camden Yards is what makes free agents salivate.

He is a living, breathing best-case scenario. Mussina escaped Cal Ripken's grip on Baltimore's baseball community, not to mention Albert Belle's wall-to-wall anger at the world and the Orioles' self-inflicted dark age, which spiraled downward the more money owner Peter Angelos spent.

Mussina said "I could've spent the last six or seven years being very comfortable" in Baltimore. Instead, he signed a seven-year, $88.5 million contract and never said another word. Even now, nine months after putting on the pinstripes, he doesn't smile much, doesn't talk to his teammates very often, and prefers to be left alone with his crosswords puzzles. But say this about Mussina: the man can pitch.

Of all the statistics that speak to Mussina's excellence — a 3.15 ERA, second-lowest in the AL this year, or his 9.8 base runners per nine innings, the league's lowest ratio — what's most impressive is that Mussina pitched under pressure virtually every start.

Why? Because the Yankees scored only 4.53 runs per nine inning during his starts. Only four pitchers received less support than Mussina and only one, Boston's Tim Wakefield, felt the squeeze in a pennant race.

Maybe that explains why Mussina seems so dour, although as one Yankee put it, "Mike would be that way on the best day of his life. It's just who he is. We've learned to deal with it."

If nothing else, Mussina's aloofness makes it easy for him accept the enormous responsibility of facing Curt Schilling tonight — the first of five potential showdowns the Yankees are anticipating with the National League's two most dominant pitchers.

Between Schilling and Randy Johnson, the Yankees will face a storm of 97-mph fastballs, and if Mussina is dreaming about a generous supply of runs, he's certain to be disappointed.

It takes a particular stamina to pitch in a one-run game, knowing that one mistake, and your night is over. There was no clearer example of Mussina's psychological strength than his Sept.Ÿ2, near-perfect game against the Red Sox.

For every devastating knuckle-curve Mussina threw, David Cone countered with a perfect slider or sinking, two-seam fastball. It was the same way in GameŸ3 of the Division Series against the A's, when Mussina held onto a 1-0 lead that, in Paul O'Neill's words, "Basically turned that series around."

Inning after inning, teammates said, Mussina maintained the same stoic expression on his face. Mussina won't tell you what he thinks, and his body-language is one huge blank page. In fact, one scout who followed the Yankees in September said, of all the members of the starting rotation, Mussina is the greatest enigma because, "He doesn't give away any clues. You can't read him."

Andy Pettitte, for example, wears his frustrations openly, especially after giving up a base hit on a mistake-pitch. Orlando Hernandez will literally shout in Jorge Posada's face if he and the catcher can't agree on signs. And Roger Clemens works with an NFL lineman's intensity that's about all adrenaline and focus.

But Mussina's emotions are nowhere on the radar screen. Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says, "Mike is a consummate professional and he communicates with me and the staff in an open way." But that's not to say Stottlemyre or even Joe Torre is close to Mussina.

What they do recognize is the mystery of that knuckle-curveball, which sets Mussina apart from practically every other American League pitcher. True, Oakland's Jason Isringhausen throws a similar one, but he's been blessed with a 96-mph fastball, and in times of crisis, will rely on pure heat.

Mussina doesn't throw much faster than 91-mph, which means his knuckle-curve has to work for him to succeed.

What's remarkable is that, not only does the pitch baffle a hitter — it features the non-spin of a knuckleball and the enormous arc of a conventional curveball — but that Mussina can throw it for a strike at will.

That explains why Mussina can freeze a hitter with a middle-of-the-plate fastball. If they're looking for the knuckle-curve, they're virtually helpless. The Diamondbacks say they're ready, but the utterly blank expression on Mussina's face on Friday told you he is, too.


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