Bronx, N.Y., April 6, 2007 — The trend of four-inning outings by their starters continued in the Yanks’ 6-4 loss to Baltimore in the Stadium Friday night, but at least they managed to play error-free for the first time since the season began earlier this week. Although it’s always a concern when Mike Mussina’s rest and mound schedule is affected by injury or rainout, his failed outing this time seemed more a result of the frigid conditions than any disruption in his routine.
The Orioles were on Mike from the outset, using Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis doubles around a Melvin Mora bunt single to post two quick runs on the first 12 throws they saw. The lack of a prompt response to that bunt, by the way, was the lone vestige of the sloppy play the Yanks had shown in their first two games. Struggling at the bat coming in (but not going out), Mora showed bunt on a 1-0 pitch with Roberts on second, but Moose and his infield were slow to react when he bunted again on the next pitch.
It’s been commonplace to watch Mussina’s fast ball of late. He can’t bring it at the speeds he once did, but he succeeds when he conceals it among an array of slower stuff. That the gun readings had it hovering in the upper 80s was not a surprise; that he was throwing just the heater almost exclusively was. Moose changes speeds effectively on a cutter, a curve ball, and a change of pace, but all three are “feel” pitches. He obviously started this game with no feel, and struggled with all he had, which was pretty much the fast ball until he was pulled after four frames and 84 pitches. It wasn’t until he had fallen behind 2-0 that he retired Aubrey Huff on a weak grounder on his first cutter. His curve was largely absent, and the change made only intermittent appearances in the second, third, and fourth innings.
The Yankee offense showed signs all night, though it was more miss than hit. Southpaw Adam Loewen caused them fits twice last year, but they were stroking his offerings Friday, perhaps because he too was throwing more heat rather than the curve he featured last summer. Melky Cabrera walked to lead off the bottom of the first, but he erred in being doubled off on Derek Jeter’s soft liner toward the second base hole. Bobby Abreu followed with a tracer down third that Mora gloved with a stab.
The Yanks equaled the O’s in the second on a rally begun when A-Rod drilled an 0-1, no-out double into the left field corner. Jason Giambi, who in a hitless night failed with runners in scoring position three times, moved Aex one base with a four-hopper to second. Hideki Matsui singled in a run and, after an out, Robbie Cano followed with the first of two rbi hits, this one a double into the right field corner that knotted matters at 2-2.
But Mussina was in trouble again in the third on Markakis’s second double, a hit by pitch, and a Jay Gibbons single the other way into left center that plated two. When Corey Patterson doubled in Gibbons to go ahead 5-2, Baltimore had a lead they would not relinquish. Moose never did settle down, and Huff’s two-out single in the fourth made it 6-2. With innings of 17, 21, 28, and 18 pitches, Joe Torre sent Sean Henn out to replace Mike to start the fifth.
The Yanks loaded the bases with one out in the third and had two on with one down in the fourth, but failed to score each time. But if there was a highlight of the night it was the masterful work of lefty Henn. Sean did not strike out anyone, and he threw only three of 10 first-pitch strikes, but he retired nine of 10 over the next three frames on just 41 tosses. That figure becomes oh so much more impressive when you consider that the lone blot on the record, a Mora single in the sixth, was the culmination of an 11-pitch battle. Henn used four grounders, three flies, and two infield popups to get the nine outs on just 30 throws.
If this team is to go anywhere, the pen will have to excel as they did Monday, though nobody expects the four-inning start to be around very long. After Henn left, Mike Myers and Scott Proctor recorded the next six outs, though Myers allowed a walk and Proctor was touched by a long Mora drive to center on which Cabrera made a fine play. Melky is showing nothing with his bat, but he handled center field in the absence of the injured Johnny Damon with ease.
After the Yankee offensive fits and starts early, the story of the rest of the game was that Baltimore trotted out a brand-new bullpen of their own once Loewen was pulled after throwing 89 pitches over five. Though they did not shut down the Yanks like Henn and company did against their offense, they didn’t have to. Tasked with holding a four-run lead through four frames, the O’s relievers passed with flying colors, bending in allowing single tallies in the sixth and seventh, but getting the big outs when they needed to.
New York closed to 6-3 in the sixth against lefty John Parrish after Baltimore shortstop Miguel Tejada booted Matsui’s bouncer up the middle and then compounded matters by throwing away the ball, placing Hideki on second with no outs on the two errors. Cano delivered him one out later, but Josh Phelps struck out by swinging and missing badly on three straight tosses. Then Jeter worked challenging righty submariner Chad Bradford through a tough at bat for a single to start the home seventh, and Abreu sent him to second with a one-base hit of his own.
The Yanks were set up but Bradford whiffed Rodriguez on three pitches on his hands, and although there were some mutters and a smattering of boo’s, most (uncharacteristically) seemed to recall that Alex had started the two-run uprising that had originally gotten the Yanks on the board and muted their negative response. Southpaw Jamie Walker came on and did his job too, striking out Giambi on high cheese that looked much harder than it was. Posada singled for a run, but Markasis’s quick reaction held the speedy Abreu at third. When Cano popped to short, the Yanks were done, and Danys Baez and Chris Ray threw one-two-three innings in the eighth and ninth respectively to close it out.
So the Yanks are 1-2 against the kind of opposition they are expected to dominate. The conditions have been atrocious, but the Rays and O’s played in them too. The hitting has been good though spotty in key situations, and the pen rebounded after a touch night in Thursday’s snow squalls. It is hoped that the string of four-inning starts comes to a close soon, perhaps tomorrow with new southpaw Kei Igawa. He’s played largely under controlled conditions in Japan’s domed stadiums, so the forecast for continued cold weather is a concern.
As for Mussina, it’s clear that tonight’s struggling performance is not a good barometer. He has been able to largely dominate superior opposition with his arsenal of pitches and crafty disposition. And although I’m not sure I’ve seen him so confined to his fastball in the past, I have witnessed him escape threat after threat on tough nights by pulling just the right pitch from his bag of tricks when things seem their bleakest.
Famous magician Harry Houdini would have celebrated his 133rd birthday this day. A master escape artist, Harry was reportedly beaten by a mix of conditions and his own failing body. When wily Yankee Mike Mussina’s own frozen right hand and the Orioles backed him into a corner of a 6-2 deficit, he experienced a similar fate: