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5 times Mussina was almost perfect on mound

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the eighth story in a 17-part series looking at Mike Mussina’s journey from Montoursville to the National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Mike Mussina won 270 Major League games. He compiled one of the greatest winning percentages ever and is one of 15 pitchers who has ever won at least 100 more games than he lost.

Certainly, Mussina was not in the zone for all 270 of those wins. His ability to so consistently win was one part brilliance, one part toughness and one part resourcefulness. It was not always sunshine and rainbows, but he could battle through the tough days.

“You don’t have the same stuff every day either so while you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to get somebody out you have to remember that maybe today I don’t have the best curveball, maybe my location isn’t that good. I usually throw 92, but today it’s going 87 for some reason. It just doesn’t have any life today so how are we going to get through sixth and seventh innings because I just can’t go, ‘sorry guys, I didn’t have it today,'” Mussina said. “These guys are out there every day busting their rears. My job was to stay out there as long as I could whether I had good stuff or not.”

When Mussina did have that good stuff it was like handing Rembrandt a paint brush and giving him a blank canvas on which to work. On his best days, Mussina was virtually unbeatable and unhittable. And five times he was nearly perfect.

Three times Mussina took perfect games into the eighth inning and twice into the ninth. His most famous brush with perfection came in 2001 during his first year with the Yankees when Mussina was one strike away from a perfect game before Carl Everett hit a single. There were four other times, however, that also showed how awesome Mussina could be at his peak. In those five close calls he went 5-0 with five complete games, four shutouts, while allowing just six hits, two walks and striking out 61.

“He was one or two steps ahead. His body and mind were always working together,” former Major Leaguer Tom O’Malley said. “He had all those Gold Gloves (7). Look at that athleticism. He’s helping himself so much defensively, too. Anything back to the mound or bunting or swinging bunts, he’s all over it. He’s getting it done. He was an unbelievable pitcher.”

Mussina threw the first of four one-hitters during his first full season with the Baltimore Orioles in 1992. That night he retired the first 12 Texas Rangers he faced before allowing a fifth-inning leadoff double to Kevin Reimer. Mussina then retired the last 15 batters, coming within that hit of a perfect game and he struck out 10.

Eight years later, Mussina looked like King Kong against the Minnesota Twins’ hitters, throwing another one-hitter and striking out 15. This was the only time in Mussina’s five near no-hitters that he walked anybody, issuing two walks.

The most memorable performances, however, were the ones when Mussina came within four or fewer outs from doing something only 23 Major League pitchers ever have. One came on Aug. 4, 1998 when Mussina retired the first 23 Detroit Tigers he faced. With two outs in the eighth inning, Frank Catalanotto doubled. Mussina allowed one more hit, settling for a two-hit shutout with eight strikeouts in a 4-0 win. It was the latest example of Mussina putting all his talent, intelligence and pitching greatness together.

“Mike was such a cerebral player. He had those God-given abilities that he worked so hard to nurture and he was by far the most intelligent player I ever played with,” said Eric Giles, Mussina’s catcher at Montoursville in 1986-87. “His accuracy is what made Mike flourish. It was so easy to catch Mike. You didn’t have to move your glove. He’d throw it wherever it was supposed to go. He’d hit it every time.”

It seemed that way on May 30, 1997 when Mussina came within two outs of a perfect game against the eventual American League champion Cleveland Indians. Overpowering Cleveland from the start, Mussina looked invincible until Sandy Alomar broke up the perfect game with a one-out single in the ninth inning. Mussina shrugged the hit off like a bee sting and struck out the final two batters, putting the finishing touches on a 3-0 win as the Orioles continued their march to the American League East championship.

For those watching the games, it might start hitting in fourth inning that a pitcher is throwing a perfect game. For Mussina it did not happen until later. He was too engrossed in his job. Eventually he noticed, but not because a teammate coach, teammate or fan alerted him.

“You become aware of it the last third of the game simply because you realize I haven’t been out of the stretch yet. In those circumstances I remember, ‘wait a minute, have I pitched out of the stretch today? It’s the sixth inning, that can’t be right,'” Mussina said. “Then you start to realize who is coming up to hit and you go, ‘he’s the seventh hitter and he’s leading off the sixth. Nobody has gotten on base yet?'”

Mussina experienced that feeling again on Sept. 2, 2001 as he ovepowered a potent Boston Red Sox lineup at Fenway Park. Everything was working that night as Mussina used his right arm to paint his most famous pitching masterpiece. Coincidentally, Mussina was matched against David Cone who had thrown the last perfect game in the majors as a member of the New York Yankees in 1999. As Mussina made a run at perfection, it was not even a given that he would even earn the win because the game remained scoreless through eight innings.

When Enrique Wilson hit a pinch-hit RBI double in the top of the ninth that gave the Yankees a 1-0 lead, the scene shifted toward Mussina and his run at perfection. After he retired Troy O’Leary and Lou Merloni, Mussina went up 1-2 on Everett, who was pinch-hitting for catcher Joe Oliver. Mussina did not make a bad pitch, but Everett was able to go with it just enough and blooped a single into left-center field. Everett represented the tying run, but Mussina induced Trot Nixon into a game-ending groundout and settled for a 1-0 win that included 13 strikeouts.

Ask Mussina about that game and he does not remember a lot. Pitching can be like taking photographs. And often it is the bad snapshots that are remembered most while the good ones are nearly forgotten.

“That game in Boston I don’t even remember what happened. I don’t remember any of it until like the last inning,” Mussina said. “(First baseman) Tino Martinez made a diving play at first base, but other than that, I don’t remember much of the game at all. It was all just happening. I was just doing it and it was working. Usually you really try to record in your head the bad stuff, like I hung that one or I got in a bad count or he did a nice job because that wasn’t even a strike and he stayed with it and hit it the opposite field. The bad stuff you record but when everything is an out, other than the sequence of pitches, you don’t remember much because I didn’t make a mistake. I did what I was supposed to do. I’ll remember the sequence, but other than that the good days, I don’t remember much of them at all.”

But Mussina is human. His teams won those games, but he sure would have loved achieving such a rare milestone, too. Still, look at some of the names on the perfect game and no-hitter lists. While there are some great ones, there also are names like Len Barker and Philip Humber. While those names have been lost to history, Mussina has gained baseball immortality without achieving in-game perfection. Advantage, Mussina.

“When you get late in the game more than once for the no-hitter it’s a little frustrating when it doesn’t happen the second, third and fourth times, but it’s OK,” Mussina said. “I’ll give up all that stuff to get to go to the Hall of Fame. If I threw no-hitters and then won 125 games and didn’t get to go to the Hall of Fame who cares? I’m not going to live on the no-hitters. You can look through and see guys that people have never heard of who threw no-hitters. I’d rather go my whole career and never throw a no-hitter and get to do this than do that. I don’t want to be a one-year wonder.”

Mussina certainly was not that. And after putting together a stellar career with the Orioles, Mussina showed he could be just as impressive pitching for the game’s most storied franchise.

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