- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2001

BALTIMORE. It was almost a typical Mike Mussina game he had a lead in the ninth inning and watched as the Orioles nearly blew it for him.

This time, though, it was different. Mussina was pitching for the New York Yankees, and not the Orioles, so even when closer Mariano Rivera had walked leadoff batter Jeff Conine and had gone 2-0 on Chris Richard, there was a sense of comfort for Mussina rather than doom.

He knew he was on the winning side.

Sure enough, the Orioles, on cue, blew their opportunity when Richard struck out and pinch-runner Eugene Kingsale got thrown out at second on a botched hit-and-run. From nobody out and a runner on first to two outs and nobody on. Rivera dispatched of Jay Gibbons on a called third strike, and Mussina, appropriately enough, came away with a 2-1 win, his 150th career victory, in the town he pitched in for 10 years before signing with the Yankees during the winter.

"[The Yankees have] had some success here, and until this year I've been on the losing end of it most of the time," Mussina said.

Yeah, a little bit, like a 24-10 record against the Orioles at Camden Yards since 1996, including this four-game series sweep that ended with Mussina's outstanding pitching performance yesterday.

It was not vintage Mussina. Coming off his three-hit complete game 4-0 shutout in Minnesota on Tuesday, Mussina didn't expect to match that performance, and he didn't. But it was enough to hold the Orioles to one run on six hits over seven innings pitched. He walked two and struck out three and showed the sellout crowd of 47,740 that the only thing that had changed for the pitcher was that he was on the winning side, with a winning club. Of the 10 years that Mussina compiled a 147-81 record for the Orioles, five of them were for losing teams.

"The other day in Minnesota I had everything, including location, and today I had about two or two and a half things, and decent location," he said after his third win this year against three defeats. "I was hoping that I had decent stuff, because to go back-to-back with great stuff doesn't hardly ever happen. I know I walked a couple of guys, but I didn't get behind badly on too many counts, and was able to make a pitch when I had to. That's what was important."

Mussina has the sort of intense focus to know what was important, and it wasn't all of the furor over the first time he pitched against his old team, although everyone else seemed to think it was. What was important was to win the game, and by doing so in such a matter-of-fact way clearly not at his best it sort of made the whole event anticlimatic, certainly in the face of the buildup as this day approached.

It was a mixed reception that Mussina got as he walked out of the Yankees dugout about 25 minutes before game time and toward the bullpen with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. Unlike every other start he warmed up for at Camden Yards, Mussina would walk up the ramp to the upper bullpen, about eight feet above the Orioles bullpen. It's closer to the fans, and there might have been more of a crowd to watch him warm up, but the area was cordoned off for a picnic for Catholic University students.

Still, they weren't very Christian to Mussina, although one heckler used religious overtones to go after the pitcher as he warmed up. "It's redemption time, Mussina," yelled Phil Hughes, a CU student. "Repent for your sins. This is your day of reckoning."

Others were not as dramatic, but just as boisterous, chanting "sellout, sellout," and, "You're number three," referring to Mussina's place in the starting rotation for the Yankees, compared to his number one status with the Orioles. Others urged him to ignore the hecklers. "We still love you, Mike," one fan yelled. As he warmed up, he faced two signs hung on the fence in the stands one a number 35 in a Yankee jersey with the words "35 Sellout Poster," and the other a valentine of sorts with Mussina and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner as the loving couple.

There were at least three Yankees security officers in the bullpen area while Mussina warmed up, and one of them, in a rare move, had accompanied Mussina from the dugout to the bullpen. There were no incidents, and after the game Mussina was careful to repeat several times that he understood everyone had a right to express their opinions.

"The bullpen warmup was about what I expected," Mussina said. "When you have been lucky enough to pitch in playoff games on the road, and I had to pitch in Cleveland and Seattle, it can get tough. For a lot of people, [seeing me in a Yankees uniform] was tough to swallow and they want to get something off their chest, and they do it in the way they know how, whether with signs or verbally, and if they come to the game they are allowed to express themselves as long as they are not endangering anyone on the field."

When Mussina came out to pitch the bottom of the first, it was also a mixed greeting, although it seemed to grow in favor of Mussina, as many in the crowd gave Mussina the second greatest pitcher in the history of this franchise, behind only Jim Palmer the recognition he deserved. "The reaction was about what I expected," he said. "I've been saying for a couple of weeks now that I expected a little bit of everything, and there was a little bit of everything, people cheering and people not cheering."

Actually, they all should have been standing and cheering loudly for Mussina. Remember, according to owner Peter Angelos, if the Orioles had re-signed him, those fans would have been paying more for their tickets to watch this 13-19 ballclub. That's worth a standing ovation.

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