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Mussina’s rare relief appearance in Game 7 paid off big

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the 11th story in a 17-part series looking at Mike Mussina’s journey from Montoursville to the National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Finally, the Red Sox looked like they might enjoy the last laugh against their long-time nemesis. Finally, they would not be the Charlie Brown to the Yankees’ Lucy Van Pelt, pulling up the football right before it could be kicked.

It was Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series and the Red Sox led the Yankees, 4-0, with runners on the corners and no outs in the fourth inning. They had just chased Roger Clemens from the game and appeared poised to break it open while dealing “The Curse of the Bambino” a major blow. After years of losing big games against the Yankees and watching them celebrate World Series after World Series, the team that had not won one since 1918 was about to flip the script.

The Yankees needed someone who could stop the avalanche and keep their title dreams alive. They found that person in an unlikely place. Mike Mussina had never made a relief appearance in 13 seasons playing professional baseball, but with so much riding on what happened against the next few batters, manager Joe Torre called on him from the bullpen.

Eventually, this contest became known as “The Aaron Boone Game,” after Boone hit an 11th-inning walkoff home run as the Yankees extended the Bambino’s curse for one more year and defeated Boston, 6-5. Looking back, though, it could be labeled the Mike Mussina Game because if Mussina did not enter in the fourth and threw three brilliant innings of scoreless relief, Boone likely never would have had a chance at being the hero. Considering the circumstances, this was an all-time performance.

“The Aaron Boone game was one where he came in and stepped it up. If he didn’t do what he did they would never had a chance,” former Major Leaguer Tom O’Malley said. “He sacrificed being a starting pitcher. That’s what the great ones do. They sacrifice and do anything to help the team. That’s what makes them great.”

Mussina did not have to be just great when he entered Game 7. He had to be perfect. Even allowing the runner on third to score could have been a fatal blow, putting the Red Sox up 5-0 with Pedro Martinez pitching.

Oh yeah, Mussina was doing something he had not in nearly 15 years. Jason Varitek was the first batter he faced and as Mussina warmed up he had to not just think about the hard-hitting catcher, but also change the mindset he had held since the late 1980s.

“I come into the game and as a starter my mentality if it’s first and third with nobody out is that guy (on third) is going to score, but let’s make sure he’s the only guy who scores. Let’s hold him to one,” Mussina said. “I come into the game and I’ve got the same mentality. That guy most likely is going to score, but if we just get out of here with that one run that is the best-case scenario. Probably nine times out of 10 that is what’s going to happen, that guy is going to score.”

The challenge now was bucking those odds. Mussina knew he had to take change his thinking and use a closer-like mentality. A fire was raging and Mussina had to put it out to save the season.

Not only did he do it, but Mussina made it look easy. He overpowered Varitek, striking him out on three pitches. Next up was leadoff hitter Johnny Damon and Mussina continued the offensive, going right after him with two straight strikes. Working ahead, Mussina tied up Damon with his 0-2 pitch and he grounded into an inning-ending double play. The Yankees still faced an uphill climb, but disaster was averted.

Mussina was equally impressive over the next two innings, finishing with three scoreless innings against a fearsome offense and giving the Yankees a shot at coming back. By the seventh inning, they pulled within 4-2 before tying it with three runs in the eighth.

“I got out of that inning with a strikeout and double play ball somehow and they didn’t score,” Mussina said. “We get two more runs and Ortiz hits a home run and it’s 5-2 and then that’s when the whole leaving Pedro in too long thing happened and we tied it up and then Boone hits the homer late.”

That scenario likely does not unfold without Mussina throwing three dominant innings. This became one of the all-time great underrated performances in playoff history. If Mussina makes one mistake, the Red Sox almost certainly win. Having no Major League relief appearance, Mussina stranded two runners in the fifth and retired the last five batters he faced. He struck out three and threw strikes on 25 of 33 pitches.

Mussina pitched in a lot of big games and delivered many clutch performances. But this one was special. This one helped produce a pennant against the odds and that is why Mussina ranks it among his three most memorable games.

“There’s no question that’s in my Top 3,” Mussina said. “That was a big one.”

The first big one had come eight years earlier when Mussina was pitching for the Orioles. It was Sept. 6, 1995 and Cal Ripken was breaking Lou Gehrig’s record for most consecutive games played, starting in his 2,131st straight game. Camden Yards had long been sold out, President Bill Clinton was among those in attendance and Mussina could feel the pressure.

“You know it’s going to happen. The biggest pressure of that game was making sure we didn’t lose,” Mussina said. “I gave up a solo homer in the top of the first. I’m thinking, ‘This can’t happen, we can’t lose game 2,131.’ I got better after that and we scored a couple runs and Ripken hit a homer, so it worked out.”

The Aaron Boone Game gave Mussina the second of his three greatest moments. After pitching for 18 years, though, it turned out Mussina was saving his best moment for last.

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