The renaissance of Mike Mussina
Yankees veteran righty is off to one of his best starts in years
Pitching is part science, part art. Mike Mussina embraces both elements and has blended them together in a renaissance season for the New York Yankees.
Mussina seemed washed up a year ago, so lost on the mound that he was relegated to the bullpen at one point. After struggling to an 11-10 record and 5.15 earned run average, he was an afterthought in Spring Training, lost in the excitement surrounding the Yankees' new, young arms -- Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain.
Two-plus months into the season, however, Hughes and Kennedy are on the disabled list and Chamberlain is involved in a delicate transformation from reliever to starter.
Meanwhile, at age 39 and in the last year of his contract, Mussina has reinvented himself, and has again become the Yankees' most reliable starter, winning nine of his first 14 starts, a win total that is tied for the American League lead. He pitched eight strong innings in 94-degree heat on Monday in an unsuccessful bid to become the Majors' second 10-game winner. Instead, he got his first no-decision of the season. The thinking man's pitcher understands the irony of his situation.
``Funny how things happen,'' Mussina said. ``When I got to Spring Training, I was hoping to stay in the rotation. A lot of people assumed my best stuff was behind me. Granted I don't throw 90 mph anymore, but I still know how to pitch.''
Gradually, he has regained his position atop the Yankees' rotation. He's had help from his teammates: good defense, timely hitting and a dependable bullpen. When those things are in place, the rest has been easy.
``This is a great game,'' Mussina said. ``It's a frustrating game and a strange game, all at the same time.''
Over his career, Mussina has been the model of consistency. He has won 10 or more games for 16 consecutive years, an AL record. According to Elias Sports Bureau, only six other pitchers have accomplished that (either pitching in the NL or in both leagues). Five of that group -- Cy Young, Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Warren Spahn and Nolan Ryan -- are in the Hall of Fame. The sixth -- 350-game winner Greg Maddux -- is headed there.
Mussina's next win will tie him with Ted Lyons for the 10th most wins in AL history. He has won at least nine games before the All-Star break in 14 of the last 15 years.
The baseball landscape is littered with pitchers who never quite figured out how to make the transition from power to precise. The trick is hitting spots, something that sounds easier than it is.
The craft is like real estate, all about location. And Mussina knows that better than anyone. So if he can't blow batters away with his fastball anymore, he can keep them off balance with a variety of pitches and speeds. His fastball flirts with the high 80s. His curve is about 20 mph slower. Cutters and sliders are somewhere in between. All those pitches come from different spots. For hitters, figuring out what's coming next is an enigma.
``When you feel like you can get the ball where you want to, mixing stuff up is really easy,'' he said.
An old catcher like Yankees manager Joe Girardi appreciates the adjustments Mussina has made.
``You don't forget how to pitch,'' the manager said.
Certainly not somebody with the savvy of Mussina.
In his 18th Major League season, Mussina holds a unique record. No other pitcher has reached 250 victories without benefit of a 20-win season. He is a grinder, feeling his way through games, usually finding a way to win.
Mussina's surprising success this season has people talking about him as a potential member of the AL All-Star team when the game is played at Yankee Stadium next month. It would be his first selection since 1999, evidence of how long he's been a productive pitcher. For his part, Mussina just takes it start by start, figuring it out as he goes along.
``I'm still learning the game,'' he said, ``and I've been around a long time.''
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.