- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2008

Except for the batted ball that bounced impertinently off his right elbow, Mike Mussina had things well in hand Tuesday night against the Blue Jays. He left after five innings when stiffness set in, but his scoreless, six-strikeout effort was plenty good enough to earn his 19th win of the season and 269th of his career.

Both those numbers have more than passing significance for the Oriole-turned-Yankee - the first because of the number that follows it, the second because of the one that precedes it. After 19, of course, comes 20, and Mussina, for all his accomplishment, is still looking for his first 20-win season, arguably the biggest hole in his resume.

On the other hand, he now has one more victory than Baltimore legend Jim Palmer, and his 269-153 record is virtually identical to Palmer’s 268-152. Slim Jim, however, was ushered into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, no questions asked. With Moose, there’s been an ongoing debate about his worthiness, about his lack of a Cy Young Award and assorted other deficiencies.

Maybe becoming a 20-game winner a few months shy of his 40th birthday will put him over the top with Hall voters. Or maybe he won’t be a sure thing until he notches No. 300. Which raises the question: Does he even have 31 more victories in that right arm of his?


We’ve been talking a lot about pitchers the past few months. In this, the fifth year of drug testing, the balance between hitter and hurler seems to have been restored. At the moment, with just a handful of games left, there’s only one 40-homer man in the majors - the Phillies’ Ryan Howard (who also has a shot at being the first player to strike out 200 times in a season). The last time you could say that was 1989, when Kevin Mitchell swatted 47 and no one else managed more than 36.

There’s been a fair share of doubles, though. In fact, the Orioles might make history in that department. Brian Roberts already has 51 two-baggers (going into Wednesday night), Aubrey Huff 48 and Nick Markakis 47. No big league team - going back to Abner, uh, Doubleday - has ever had three players with 50 or more.

I don’t know about you, but I get chills. Not just because The Gapper is back in style but because the game is starting to resemble its pre-BALCO self - that lazy, hazy time when home runs weren’t as plentiful as Free Souvenir Seat Cushions.

On top of that, we’re seeing some terrific pitching - and not necessarily from the flamethrowers, either. Cliff Lee, whose heater would never cause a radar gun to short circuit, was an unheard-of 22-2 before losing at Fenway the other night. This, for a barely-above-.500 Indians team. Over in the National League, meanwhile, Brandon Webb, a sinkerballer, has won 22 for a barely-above-.500 Diamondbacks team.

In case you missed it, there was only one 20-game winner the past two seasons - Boston’s Josh Beckett last year. Baseball had never had a two-year stretch like that (except in the strike-shortened ‘94 and ‘95 seasons). But we could have as many as four 20-game winners this year, depending on how Mussina and the Blue Jays’ Roy Halladay (19-11) do the rest of the way. And the Red Sox’s Daisuke Matsuzaka also would have had a chance at 20 if he hadn’t missed several starts because of an injury.

As wondrous as any of them, though, has been Tim Lincecum of the Giants. The 24-year-old fireballer with the quirky delivery is 17-5 and Webb’s main competition for the Cy; in games he hasn’t gotten a decision, his club is 53-82 (.393) - Nats territory. It’s a whole new ballgame, all right. Pitchers are even flourishing on terrible teams.

Mussina, smart man that he is, has tended to avoid such handicaps. He left the O’s in free agency just as the franchise was unraveling and has maintained his glossy winning percentage (.637) pitching for George Steinbrenner’s Traveling All-Stars. Granted, his charm bracelet doesn’t include a 20-win season - yet - but this is the third time he’s reached 19 wins, and he’s had three other 18-win years.

Throw in the five All-Star Games, the six Gold Gloves and the six top-five finishes in the Cy Young balloting (with No. 7 on the horizon) and you’d have to say Mussina’s Hall of Fame application is filling up. Yes, his postseason record (7-8) could be better, and yes, his career lacks that One Sensational Year so many of the great pitchers have. But at 39, with his fastball down to 85, he has reminded us once again how good he is at the not-so-easy act of winning a baseball game. He may not be a lock for the Hall quite yet, but he has one foot and four toes in the door.