In 1996, 27-year-old Mike Mussina made his first postseason appearance with the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles finished 88-74 and earned a Wild Card birth. They faced the top-seeded and defending AL-champion Cleveland Indians in the ALDS.
Mussina was the best starter on the team. He led the team in ERA, wins, innings pitched, strikeouts, and pitching WAR. His 243.2 innings would be his career high for a season.
The Orioles offense was amazing in 1996. Their 240 home runs broke the record for most home runs by a team in MLB history (helped by Brady Anderson‘s well-known 50 HR outburst). Seven of the team’s regular nine starters produced an OPS over .800.
For reasons we can not ascertain, Orioles manager Davy Johnson waited until Game 3 to start Mussina. David Wells and Scott Erickson started games one and two respectively. The Orioles won both. In those days the division series operated in a 2-3 format, so the Indians returned home to face Mussina in their attempt to rally back. Mussina pitched adequately in his lone ALDS start, going six innings and allowing three earned runs on seven hits and two walks while recording six strikeouts. Mussina departed with the game tied 4-4. Jesse Orosco and Armando Benitez managed to end any chances for an Orioles sweep, when after three walks from Orosco, Benitez came in to allow a grand slam to Albert Belle.
The Orioles won game four, and the series, in 12 innings on a Roberto Alomar home run.
The Orioles faced the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
Like many moments in Mussina’s career (see: Game 3 2001 ALDS), his first ALCS was overshadowed by someone else. In this case, it wasn’t another teammate or player but a fan, Jeffrey Maier, who infamously interfered with a ball that Oriole outfielder Tony Tarasco almost certainly could have caught, but which was instead ruled a game-tying HR for Derek Jeter. If this game is played after 2008 it’s almost certainly ruled an out and the Orioles are only four outs away from a Game 1 victory. Video of the incident is below.
The Orioles won Game 2 and Mussina started the next day in Game 3 back in Baltimore. A first inning Todd Zeile HR gave the Orioles a 2-0 lead. Mussina looked to be locked in. Over seven strong innings, he held the Yankees to one run on four hits and two walks. He was still firing on all cylinders heading into the 8th, where he retired the first two hitters easily. Mussina had thrown less than 100 pitches and stood only four outs from a complete game victory that would give the Orioles a 2-1 series lead. But then the wheels came off and the Moose plummeted off the hill and into a ball of fire and flame. The next four Yankees got hits and scored, capped by Cecil Fielder‘s two-run homerun that put the Yankees ahead 5-2. After the HR, Johnson lifted Mussina for Orosco. Mussina had thrown only 108 pitches.
The Orioles never lead again in the series. They hung close in Game 4 but gave up a late rally that allowed the Yankees to coast to an 8-4 win. In Game 5, Scott Erickson imploded and allowed a 6-spot to the Yankees in the 3rd inning. The Yankees were American League champions for the first time in 15 years.
The bittersweet aspect of this rare Mussina meltdown is that it came at the hands of his future team and players he would consider close friends while a Yankee. Jeter started the rally with a double down the right-field line and was then driven in by a Bernie Williams single. Tito Martinez then followed with a double. Some of the blame has to fall on Davy Johnson for not removing Mussina after allowing three solid hits. Armando Benitez could have been called on to face Fielder.
Mussina’s line for his first (and probably worst) postseason: 5.93 ERA, 13.2 IP, 15 H, 2 HR, 4 BB, 12 K, 1.40 WHIP.