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Mussina’s strong start an indicator of greatness to come

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

As Mike Mussina took the Comiskey Park Mound, a future Hall of Famer walked toward the batter’s box. Another future Hall of Famer waited in the hole.

As tough as facing Tim Raines and Frank Thomas was, stopping the voices in Mussina’s head might have been tougher. His climb from his basement, to the Montoursville Little League high school fields to Stanford and through the Minors had led to this moment. Mussina was now a Major Leaguer. The recent Orioles call-up made his debut Aug. 4, 1991.

Little did Raines, Thomas and all those in attendance at Chicago know that this new pitcher would someday finish his baseball career in Cooperstown. Before he could start building that Hall of Fame resume, however, Mussina had to control his emotions.

“I was scared to death. The lineup you’re facing is just a different caliber lineup than the ones you’ve been facing,” Mussina said. “You’re talking about the best players and a lot of them were the best players for a long time.”

As he looked for the sign and threw his first Major League pitch to Raines remembered something a Double A coach had told him during his brief stop at Hagerstown. That provided some comfort and Mussina remembered it throughout his career as he started becoming a baseball legend.

“I had a pitching coach who said, ‘just remember, the same stuff that gets them out in Double A gets them out in Triple A. They just hit the mistakes a lot more often,'” Mussina said. “It was the same philosophy when I got to the Majors. I’m like, ‘OK, this is the same deal. The same stuff will get them out, you just have to make less mistakes because when they hit them, they’re going to hit them hard and hit them far.'”

Look at where Mussina is going. Mistakes were made, but the right decisions and the brilliant performances far outnumber them.

And that nervous 22-year old offered a glimpse of things to come that August day in 1991. Mussina took a shutout into the seventh inning before Thomas homered and helped the White Sox win, 1-0. Mussina did not have his best stuff, but he still threw 7 2/3 innings of four-hit baseball against a team that was in the hunt for an American League West championship. Thomas had three of those hits and Mussina displayed the smarts and toughness that often would compensate for days when his pitches were not working as well as he would hope.

Some days were better than others moving forward, but Mussina provided the Hall of Fame blueprint that day.

“He had the ability to throw four pitches for strikes. It wasn’t that he had to have that one pitch working that day to have a chance,” former Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. “If you are just trying to get by with a 95 mile per hour pitch, they’re going to hit that. He was a pitcher with command and he was athletic and could hold runners on base and could field his position. He was a great athlete and he knew how to pitch.”

That became evident over the season’s final two months. Although he went 4-5, Mussina compiled an impressive 2.87 ERA. The first of Mussina’s 270 career wins came Aug. 14 against the Rangers at Camden Yards when he delivered the kind of performance that became his staple. Mussina scattered three hits, struck out 10 and walked just two as the Orioles won, 10-2. He ended that rookie season with a complete game four-hitter against the Tigers. And Mussina was just getting started.

The first indication that Mussina was going to become special was in 1992. Pitching a full season for the first time Mussina was dominant, helping spark an Orioles resurgence. He went 18-5 with a 2.54 ERA, allowing 212 hits in 241 innings and striking out 130. Mussina finished fourth in the American League Cy Young voting, was an All-Star and helped the Orioles make a 22-win improvement as they went from 67-95 to 89-73.

“Mike was in the bigs with Baltimore and he came back for a short stay and we met and I said, ‘what’s it like playing in the Majors?’ He had pitched against Minnesota and he told me every pitch he threw pitch for pitch. It was absolutely amazing,” former Montoursville baseball coach Carter Giles said. “How many guys can do that? Those are the things that made him great.”

Although he had burst onto the scene, Mussina was far from satisfied. History is littered with players who were one-year wonders and Mussina was determined he would not become another. He went back to work, grinding, learning, experimenting and continued winning.

Over the next eight seasons with Baltimore, Mussina never won fewer than 11 games. He went 101-44 through 1997, winning at least 14 games each season. Mussina won 16 games in a 112-game strike-shortened 1994 season before winning 19 more in an abbreviated 1995 season. He put together another 19-win season in 1996 as the Orioles made their first playoff appearance since 1983 and went 15-8 in 1997 when the Orioles went wire to wire, capturing the AL East championship and again advancing to the American League Championship Series. Mussina was an all-star in each of his first three seasons and finished among the top six in Cy Young voting in all but one of his first six full seasons.

“I felt like I could do it (after 1992), the question was could I keep doing it? I think I got going and started thinking it was easier than it was, but I still knew that you can’t take one season and figure that now you know what it’s like and that you can do this. I knew I could do it but one season doesn’t make a career. You have to go out and prove it again and then prove it again,” Mussina said. “It probably took me three years before I was really confident in that I’m here, I’ve been pitching for three years, I’ve won enough games that I’m pretty confident they’re going to keep me here so if I’m healthy this is my job. But if I leave the door open for someone else, he may step through it so I tried to be even better than before. You try to keep learning, try to be more consistent. You’re trying to learn new pitches and be more consistent with the ones you have. You’ll never be satisfied with where you’re at. You always try to be better.”

Mussina may have never been better than he was in the 1997 postseason. That year, pitching against two of the game’s most prolific offenses, Mussina went 2-0 with a 1.24 ERA, allowing just 11 hits in 29 innings and striking out 41. Had it not been for a lack of run support against the Indians in the ALCS, Mussina’s postseason might be remembered as one of the all-time great ones.

Mussina started Game 1 of the AL Division Series at Seattle against the game’s most powerful offense at that time. The Mariners had Ken Griffey, Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez in their lineup as well as perennial slugger Jay Buhner. Oh yeah, Randy Johnson was the Mariners starting pitcher. Mussina, though, outshined all those stars, throwing seven brilliant innings of five-hit baseball and striking out nine. Four days later at Camden Yards, Johnson and Mussina again squared off and again Mussina outdueled the 6-foot-10 legend. Mussina threw seven innings of two-hit baseball, struck out seven and helped the Orioles clinch the series with a 3-1 win.

Cleveland and its powerful offense was next and Mussina was even more dominant. He broke the ALCS for strikeouts in Game 3, fanning 15 in seven innings while allowing just three hits. The Orioles, though, lost 2-1 in extra innings. Four days later Baltimore turned to Mussina to save its season with the Indians leading, 3-2. Mussina again answered the bell and did all he could to will the Orioles to a victory, throwing eight shutout, one-hit innings and striking out 10. Again, the Orioles offense disappeared Cleveland won the pennant, 1-0 in extra innings.

“That was as good a stuff as I can throw game after game,” Mussina said. “The playoffs are who is hot at the right time and we weren’t. That’s the way it happens sometimes. We had the best team in ’97, it just didn’t work out.”

Mussina would not make another playoff start for the Orioles who struggled over the next three years, enduring losing seasons each time. Mussina remained strong, however, finishing as the Cy Young runner-up in 1999 and leading the league in innings pitched a season later. Mussina’s contract expired following the 2000 season and change was in the air. The player from a small town was about to hit the city that never sleeps. He would continue flourishing too, because he kept beating opponents with both his arm and head.

“He didn’t miss starts, he didn’t get hurt, he was as durable as they come and he wasn’t a steroid guy,” Montoursville graduate and former Major Leaguer Tom O’Malley said. “You put his name down every fifth day and you knew he was going to keep you in the game or win the game for you. He was phenomenal. He’s the kind of guy you want on your team, that’s for sure.”

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