When Yankee executives fast-forward to September's pennant race and
October's promised land, it's pitching that fuels the imagination. Within
that equation is the faith in Roger Clemens' fastball, Andy Pettitte's cutter and Mike Mussina's overall arsenal, which might be the nastiest on the staff.
It's no secret that Mussina's knuckle-curveball is both deadly and rare.
Deadly, perhaps, because it is an American League rarity, and a key reason
why the right-hander's home runs to innings-pitched ratio (four in 81) is
second in the league only to Pedro Martinez.
Yet, Mussina is struggling near the .500 mark, hardly the results the
Yankees envisioned when signing him to a six-year deal worth approximately
$84 million last winter. Mussina had dominated the AL East throughout the '90s, which is why the Yankees the chose him -- and not Manny
Ramirez -- as their free-agency prize.
Two months into the season, however, the Yankees are engaged in a
fiercer-than-expected turf war with the Red Sox, while Mussina has been both
brilliant and utterly human. In back-to-back starts against Pedro, for
example, Mussina allowed just three earned runs in 16 innings, striking out
23 and proving he's just as pressure-hardened as Clemens or Pettitte.
Without question, Mussina pitched Pedro to a standoff, splitting the two
games. That led to Joe Torre's decision to spare Mussina a third consecutive
start against the Red Sox ace on June 4, believing Mussina would benefit
from an extra day's rest. Surprisingly, Mussina allowed the Orioles six runs
and nine hits in just five innings after sitting out the extra day.
"That was one start where Mike couldn't locate the ball, and location is
very important to him," said Yankee pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. "There
was no explaining it, other than it was just one of those games. But on the
whole, Mike has been great. Stuff-wise, he's great."
Torre agreed, saying, "Mike has done everything we've asked of him, and
that is, keeping us in the game, giving us a chance to win."
The manager is right in one respect: although Mussina's 5-6 record going
into Sunday night's start against the Braves is well below his career .636
winning percentage, Mussina's 3.78 ERA is close to his 3.54 career average.
And he's turning into a strikeout pitcher, fanning exactly one batter per
inning, his best ratio ever.
The reason for that, says Torre, is, "Mike is doing such a good job
throwing that (knuckle) curveball for a strike. It makes his fastball look
4-5 mph faster. You can't look for one particular pitch from Mike."
Indeed, Mussina throws a respectable 91-mph, four-seam fastball, but was
practically unhittable against the Red Sox on May 24 at the Stadium. In
defeating Pedro, 2-1, Mussina struck out 12, including Carl Everett four
Mussina delivered a total of 16 pitches to Everett that day -- and not
once did the Sox' centerfielder make contact. Not one foul ball. Not even a
foul tip. Mussina was nearly as impressive six days later in a rematch
against Martinez, this time striking out 11, but losing, 3-0.
After that game, Mussina admitted the intense one-on-one with baseball's
best pitcher, "was pretty draining." That may or may not account for the
diluted performance against Baltimore -- although facing his former Camden
Yards teammates may have contributed to Mussina's turbulence, too.
"It was definitely weird pitching to Brady (Anderson) and (Jeff) Conine,
guys I've played with for so many years." Mussina said. "For me, they will
always be that team."
If Mussina sounded a tad homesick that day, maybe he was, in a
way. He obviously loves the Yankees' talent-level, and the organization's
impenetrable self-confidence. And Mussina certainly enjoys being free of
Orioles owner Peter Angelos. But he has no love for the intense attention the Yankees
attract, and the scrutiny that comes with being a star in New York.
The Stanford-educated Mussina is talented, smart and handsome -- a natural
for the big city, it would seem. But at the core, he's still just a quiet,
small-town athlete from Pennsylvania, who prefers to be left alone. He benefited from fewer reporters and fewer questions in Baltimore.
As a Yankee, Mussina generally discourages small talk with reporters, and
flatly refuses interviews on the day before he pitches. That need for privacy
is unusual even among the game's most non-communicative pitchers, but because
the Yankees have so many other stars and storylines -- both on and off the
field -- Mussina has been successful in flying below radar.
That is, until he steps on the mound. That's when he goes into an altered
state -- not quite as zombie-like as Clemens, but, "definitely very intense,"
says Stottlemyre. Given that mental clarity, not to mention that small, mean
fastball, the Yankees have every belief that Mussina will reach the 16-win
average he maintained for most of the '90s.
"I think we're about to see Mike go on a streak of eight or nine wins,"
Torre said. "Stuff-wise, there's no question he's capable of doing that."
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, New Jersey) covers baseball for ESPN.com.