Posted by Rorschach
I know this is a bit long, but I believe it is worth the read. A bit tragic perhaps though.
In 1996 Mike Mussina won his 19th game of the season on September 7th. He would start four more games that season. At only 27 years of age, having a twenty win season probably wasn’t at the top of his mind. He had already won 19 in 1995 and likely anticipated many more shots at 20 down the road. If only he knew.
First Attempt: Chicago Blues
On September 12th, at home in Camden Yards, Mussina was terrible. A Roberto Alomar homerun staked him to a 2-0 first inning lead. Mussina promptly gave it away with four straight hits, the crescendo being a 3-run shot from Pat Borders. Chicago led 4-2 after 2 innings. In the top of the third Danny Tartabull took Moose deep to extend the lead to 5-2. After allowing a run on two more hits in the 4th, Mussina was pulled for Archie Corbin. The White Sox would cruise to an 11-3 romp. With six earned allowed in just three and a third, there would be no 20 wins today.
Second Attempt: Rain delayed letdown
Seven days later Mussina took the hill in New York, for the first game of a doubleheader. After retiring the Yankees in order in the first, Moose hit a major snag in the top of the second. Bernie Williams and Daryl Strawberry started the rally with consecutive walks. After a force out left runners at 2nd and 3rd, Derek Jeter smashed one back through the box to score two. After issuing another walk, this time to Tim Raines, Wade Boggs drove home Jeter with a single. Mussina then walked Paul O’Neil, his fourth free pass of the inning. Mussina had loaded the bases for the Yankee’s number four hitter. Tino Martinez stepped to the plate and drilled a pitch deep to right field. Right fielder Bobby Bonilla drifted back to the warning track and made the catch at the wall. Fretting that Mussina’s rained out start from the day before might be throwing him off, Orioles manager Davy Johnson removed Mussina in favor of Archie Corbin. The Yankees cruised to a 9-3 victory. With only two meager innings of work Mussina would have to wait for number 20.
Third Attempt: The Orioles giveth and the pen taketh away.
After the abbreviated start on the 19th, Mussina started on three days rest on the 23rd. This time he was back at home against the Milwaukee Brewers. Again Mussina did not look sharp. After allowing homeruns to Jeremy Burnitz and John Jaha, and then a 2-run RBI single to Jaha, Moose trailed 5-2 against Cal Eldred and the Brew Crew. As the bottom of the sixth inning dawned the Oriole bats finally came alive for Mussina.
Three straight hits plated Bobby Bonilla and Rafael Palmerio as the O’s moved to within one run. Eddie Murray flied out for the first out of the inning, but then consecutive singles by B.J. Surhoff and Chris Hoiles plated two more runs. The O’s had the lead and Cal Eldred was headed to the showers. The Orioles would score one more in the sixth to take a 7-5 lead for Moose, who promptly retired the side 1-2-3 in the top of the 7th.
Now at over 100 pitches Mussina went back out for the top of the 8th. Dave Nilsson lined the first pitch he saw for a single. Mussina’s night was over. Alan Mills was called on to finish the 8th. After recording one out, he walked John Jaha. The legendary Marc Newfield then stepped to the plate and drilled a double that scored both runners. The game was tied 7-7 and Mussina’s 20th win of 1997 had been whisked away. The Brewers would win the game in the 10th inning with John Jaha scoring the winning run (Damn him).
On the final day of the season Mussina needed to win in order to reach 20 wins (sound familiar?). It was September 28th (sound familiar?). His team of 88 wins (sound familiar?) was on the road (sound familiar?); against a division rival (this is getting old).
Mussina matched zeros with Toronto’s Erik Hanson through the first five innings. Mussina knew what was on the line for him. His troubles of the previous three starts were well behind him. In the top of the 6th, Hanson blinked first. With Todd Zeile on third base, he uncorked a wild pitched that allowed Zeile to trot home. One to nothing, Orioles. Mussina almost made it last. After retiring the first two Blue Jay hitters in the 6th with ease, he allowed three straight singles; the third hit scoring Carlos Delgado from second. After being on the verge of getting out of the inning, it was now tied at 1. The tie, however, didn’t last.
B.J. Surhoff quickly took Hanson deep the next time the Orioles stepped to the plate. Mussina was back up 2-1. This time he would make it stand. He retired each of the three hitters he faced in the home half of the 7th and 8th, striking out three of them. In the top of the 9th Eddie Murray almost hit a 2-run homerun off Dane Johnson. However Shawn Green hauled it in, in very deep right field. Three outs stood between Mussina and a 20-win season.
At 117 pitches Mike Mussina was done for the game. The Orioles were headed to the playoffs and they would need their ace once they got there (He would not disappoint that postseason). The Orioles turned the game over to Armando Benitez.
Benitez had been with the club in 1995, but had spent much of ’96 in Triple A. He had been called up to the majors in late August and had recorded 3 saves for the Orioles in 10 innings since rejoining the team. His fastball was electric as evidenced by his 0.50 hits allowed per inning and 20 strikeouts that year. At a recently turned 23 though, he was still just a kid. Manager Davy Johnson had wanted to test him out a bit more for the playoffs that year. For that reason he had allowed him three saves opportunities in the season’s last week. The team’s regular closer, lefty Randy Myers rested in the bullpen. .
Things looked good as the bottom of the 9th began. World Series hero Joe Carter struck out looking at Benitez’s fantastic fastball. Ed Sprague was up next.
Ironically Sprague and Mussina had been college teammates at Stanford University in 1988. Not only had they been teammates but they had helped Stanford win the 1988 NCAA Division I Men’s Baseball Championship. But Sprague’s years in the major leagues were a haunted experience. He had been the Blue Jays first overall draft selection in 1988. Since reaching the majors he had played well below his expectations, never hitting above .260 in any full season before 1996. Before 1996 he had hit only 56 homeruns in 1,679 at bats and his career slugging percentage was a very weak .380. But in 1996, at age 28, Sprague had seemed to finally explode out of his shell. On the last day of the season he had already slugged 35 homeruns, twice more than in any season prior. He was also slugging an above average .496. Ed Sprague seemed to be finally coming into his own. But as with much of baseball in the 90’s it was not as it seemed.
Years later Sprague would confess to using performance-enhancing drugs and playing in major league games with a corked bat. When asked in 2008 by the Toronto Star when his cheating started Sprague responded:
“It could have been ’96 . . . I might have … I don’t remember everything I took.”
Sprague would never again hit more than 22 homeruns in a season or slug higher than .465. (His solid 1996 season earned him a 500,000 dollar raise in arbitration) Either Sprague had this one great year or something else was afoot.
For Mike Mussina this might have had tragic consequences. With one out in the 9th and the Orioles leading Toronto 2 to 1, Armando Benitez tried to sneak a changeup by Ed Sprague. Sitting on the fastball, Sprague turned on the pitch (with amazing bat speed) pulling the ball to deep left field. The ball stayed fair for a game tying homerun. Mike Mussina would not win 20 games in 1996. Benitez hung his head as Davy Johnson walked to the mound and summoned regular O’s closer Randy Myers from the pen. Myers would get out of the inning and record the win after a 10th inning homerun by Roberto Alomar gave the Orioles a 3-2 win.
Mike Mussina would not win nineteen games again until 2008. On the last day of that season he faced the Boston Red Soxs in Boston. He was 39 years old. The rest of that story will be written in 24 hours time.<–>