Twenty!

Right now. At 39, on the last day of the season, Mike Mussina is a 20-game winner. He becomes the oldest pitcher to win 20 games for the first time. I’m sitting here in Mussina’s Stanford jersey with a coffee table full of early Mussina cards, and even after doing work all day, just able to watch the ESPN.com box, I’m thrilled. 6 IN, 3 H, 0 R, 3 K, 20-9.

“He is undecided about whether to keep pitching, but if this was his last game, he went out on a highlight,” Tyler Kepner writes in a quick take for the Times. LoHud Yankees offers a Bullwinkle salute. Thank you to 11-year-old Patrick for picking the right baseball hero.

No Gastbusters to be found in Boston

The last few weeks, I had a bad feeling. Cito Gaston couldn’t return to the field without something going wrong for Mike Mussina.

At first, it appeared Gaston’s return would not allow Mike to win another game, ever. Mike broke his disaster streak last fall against the Jays, and Cito needed revenge. The run-support issues that plagued Mike’s middle years were back, and two solid games went to waste.

This blog’s local hero remained stuck on 10 wins for the season and 260 for his career. While we couldn’t expect wins in every game, the timing was suspicious. The first of the two losses — complete with an odd error and an ordered walk — came the very day of Cito’s rehiring.

It was notable, then, when the Yankees went to the edge but held onto Mike’s victory Saturday. Strategic Failure chalked up the win. After a strange bout of lightheadedness forced Mike from the game, Mariano wasn’t himself for most of the ninth. He hit two Red Sox batters and missed pitches by feet. You could feel Gaston’s spirit messing with forces of nature. But we all learned something: If you hit Manny three times with the ball, you reverse the curse of Gaston.

Almost. One beast destroyed, we inevitably thought of what could go wrong next. And the All-Star Game became our Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Gaston the Gastonian took a new form, and the snub arrived within a day. It had to happen. Had Mussina taken the field at Yankee Stadium, the resident good ghosts would’ve been too strong for the absent Gaston. Without a presence at the coming game, like he had in ’93, Cito made sure to get to Mike ahead of time.

One examined AL manager Terry Francona’s explanation of the snub and understood the true forces at work. “Because of who he is and who he represents, we talked long and hard about what is right,” said Francona, who curiously has “Tito” for a nickname and once worked in Canada. “Ultimately, what it came down to is, to do that, somebody would have been left off that is really deserving and that would have been difficult to do. So our decision was difficult because of again, who he is and the respect for the team he plays for. But to get that, we would have had to do something wrong.”

The deranged ramblings of a man possessed? Absolutely.

Mike said he wasn’t too disappointed. He said he’d head to the county fair. He said he didn’t know if his kids were disappointed after they watched the selection show. Even the Boston Globe had a nice column.

A commenter at Strategic Failure linked to LoHud’s audio of Mike’s post-win presser, where the country fair came up. The mention was noted widely, but it seemed worth posting here in transcribed form.

“What’s at the country fair that could be as fun as pitching at the All-Star Game?” “Well, shoot, they have demolition derbies, tractor pulls.” “Do you have a pig entered or something?” “No, no animals. Sorry. Next year, maybe. Or the year after. But I don’t have any animals, so …” we hope for next year, always next year.

Three more and an almost for Mussina

When Hank Steinbrenner apologizes for what he said about you, you know you’re doing something right. But both Mussina and Steinbrenner come off well in a Monday Newsday piece returing to April’s Jamie Moyer comment. Everyone can agree Mike is doing a good job.

He’s jumped to win #10 on the season and #260 in his career, up from our last check-in at 257. “He is tied with Cliff Lee of the Cleveland Indians for the A.L. lead in wins and has now reached 10 victories in each of the last 17 seasons,” the Times reported on last week’s win. “When you look back on it, you win 10 any way you can do it, it’s a good year. And, actually, my minimum’s 11. I didn’t stop at 10 in any of those years. I actually made it to 11, just like Spinal Tap.”

Earlier in the month, win #9/259 led the Times to speculate on a All-Star game start. A few days earlier, #8/258 had the AP noting Mike’s tendency to have one bad inning before adjusting and recovering. The trend has definitely been there this year, and it should be interesting to see how it progresses.

Meanwhile, the “almost” of this stretch was a rare loss from Mariano after Mike went an unbeliebable-if-you-didn’t-see-the-box-score eight innings. Compared to this effort, the always enjoyable Mussina posts in Strategic Failure fairly described the subsequent #10/260 as a “somewhat more prosaic outing.” The blog also made good note of Mike’s strikes-to-walks ratio this year, a memorable stat in his early career, one it’s surprising to see rebound.

Also surprising: Mussina’s role with the media this year. His take on Wang’s unfortunate injury, rounding the bases in interleague play: “We run in straight lines most of the time. Turning corners, you just don’t do that.”

Maybe the unexpected wins are giving him more non-gameday leeway in his head, or with the Yankees press. Maybe the relationship is more comfortable with the Yankees youth movement arriving (relatively)? I figure Joba’s a good guy but not a solid quote yet. Maybe it’s being in a Girardi clubhouse intead of Torre’s? Not that Torre would begrudge anyone the right to say something — Joe always seemed like a good listener — but maybe the space is less hallowed and more engaging.

(You had to love young Steinbrenner’s take on the injury. “My only message is simple. The National League needs to join the 21st century. They need to grow up and join the 21st century. Am I (mad) about it? Yes. “I’ve got my pitchers running the bases, and one of them gets hurt. He’s going to be out. I don’t like that, and it’s about time they address it. That was a rule from the 1800s.” Forget about interleague games and rivalries. Major League Baseball needs more interleague insults.)

Strategic Failure is reading the Feinstein’s Mussina/Glavine book, and I’m interested to hear what he thinks. After being skeptical of what Feinstein — a great writer, but a very regular book writer — could get that wasn’t covered in depth last year, a Newsday blog convinces me there’s deeper stuff worth reading.

The blog posts about Moose are running fast and furious these days, but other highlights include: the Times Bats taking a look at Cooperstown (no, I’ve never been there, yes, I of all people should go there), a commenter on a baseball card blog saying his page of Mussina Upper Deck rookies is oddly going down in value (I’ve got the card, but the Score card was happily my first, thank you late Bethesda Dugout), Seamheads.com has a nice Rookie of the Year reference, Yankee Stadium Insider gets rebuked on doubting the All-Star credentials, and River Ave. Blue posts on the one-inning blues.

And, of course, there’s the whiteboard and LoHud (via Bronx Banter).

Mussina wrote “The ice cream is back” on his message board. The Moose made a deal with Girardi that if he got to 10 wins, they’d put the ice cream freezer back in the player lounge. Now there are incentives for 12 wins (donuts) and 15 (candy, maybe).

Mussina went on one of his Dennis Miller-riffs on how he’s pitched well for so long on Mountain Dew, donuts and M&Ms.

Now there’s a union rep at work.

Shaky outings, dry-erase blogging, Ichiro’s beer

We’re not going to discuss Tuesday and Mike’s 2/3 inning. It was a train wreck of a game (Moose in NYT: “It was like I’d never pitched in my entire life”), with the saving grace of the train being operational the next day. Let’s move on to Saturday, with Mike on three days rest.

AP: “Mike Mussina survived five shaky innings before turning it over to Joba Chamberlain and New York’s reshaped bullpen, and the Yankees pummeled the Seattle Mariners 12-6 on Saturday for their first four-game winning streak of the season. … Coming off his worst start in more than a decade, Mussina (7-4) needed 74 pitches to make it through five innings. He wasted a 4-0 lead, giving up Jose Vidro’s three-run homer in the fourth followed by Beltre’s solo shot.”

MLB.com: “After Mike Mussina left the game with five innings and 74 pitches to his credit, Chamberlain entered, a nod both to Mussina’s ineffectiveness and Chamberlain’s need for work. … So Chamberlain — roughly slotted for three innings — only pitched two, and it turns out that Mussina could have pitched six quite easily. On another day, he probably would have. But his five innings, however rocky they might have been, gave him the foundation for a victory.”

NYT: “Among their happy statistics: starter Mike Mussina (7-4) has the most victories on the staff and is third in the American League. Although he was not dominant Saturday in five innings, he is, mathematically, on pace to win 20 games.”

NDN: “Mussina joked that it did not feel like short rest, because his last appearance was so short.”

That’s win 257, Strategic Failure reminds us (“Embrace the moxie”). Meanwhile, The Bronx Block this week examines Mussina’s career with a Bill James-penned Hall of Fame question list. The list has a roughly even split between the quantitative and the qualitative, and the results are more positive than I expected.

Two other things:
1. Why isn’t anyone with access writing a Mussina dry-erase board blog? Or maintaining some kind of Web list? Reportedly hanging on his locker and updated daily, the board has a kind of baseball Zen mini-feed going on. Just last week, we’ve got (Thursday) “Balls that hit the yellow stairs are usually homers. Not tonight.” and (Saturday) “K Bryant. 22 points Fri. Fly red-eye to NY to play center on Sat.” Lately, Giambi has inspired “Pitchers need thongs too.”

The Record this spring makes the popularity obvious: “A witticism, an axiom, an irreverent little quip, Mike Mussina’s dry-erase board has hosted them all — and, in the process, become the day’s first must-see.” Most appear to come from Mussina, but there seems to be a bit of a group-blog thing going on sometimes. (Unrelated, found while googling, why doesn’t Mussina play ping-pong? I’m totally cool with messing with the mind of the franchise’s most carefully protected rookie, but what’s wrong with ping-pong?)

2. Have to say it again. Every newspaper blogger in the world can learn from Peter Abraham’s LoHud Yankees blog. Last night we get the lede, “Jason Giambi looks like the male lead in Naughty Nurses, Volume 2 with that new mustache of his. But The Big G isn’t shaving any time soon. He’s 10 of 19 with six runs scored, four RBI and four extra-base hits in the last six games.”

Abraham then gives a ridiculous Ichiro quote and tells everyone to read the comments thread when it becomes an awesome festival of ridiculous Ichiro quotes. Abraham’s to start: “Playing on this team and seeing what is happening around me, I feel that something is beginning to fall apart. But, if I was not in this situation, and I was objectively watching what just happened this week, I would probably be drinking a lot of beers and booing.”

(Other coverage adds the second part of that conversation, “Usually, I enjoy Japanese beer, but given the situation, I wouldn’t care if it was Japanese beer, American beer or beer from Papua New Guinea.”)

The best one in the list is undoubtedly this one, originally in USAT: “Tiger is a great golfer, but … when you say athlete, I think of Carl Lewis. When you talk about (golfers or race-car drivers), I don’t want to see them run. It’s the same if you were to meet a beautiful girl and go bowling. If she’s an ugly bowler, you are going to be disappointed.”

McQueen, Garner, Attenborough, Mussina

“Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.”

Thought the NYT’s coverage of Phil Hughes blog, we end up at said blog. On that blog, and in better image quality on the great Journal-News LoHud Yankees Blog, we see the wall decoration Mike Mussina has led in the empty space between his locker and Hughes’ locker. We understand.

Hoping for the next start

There’s only one major leaguer whose career I’ve followed since his debut. There’s only one whose line I read regularly. There’s only one who’s playing as poorly as he is. I don’t know what to do about it. Take Monday night — the would-be redemption night — when Mike gave up big runs and lost his third game in a row.

The New York Times:

Mussina is the most analytical of pitchers, but he seems mystified by this slump. He talked about the small slice of the game that pitchers actually control. But even that much has gone awry, shaking his confidence deeply.

“Right now, I let go of it and I don’t feel like anything good is going to happen,” Mussina said. “It’s tough to pitch that way. You can’t play the game that way to feel like you have no control over anything, and that’s how I feel right now.

“Even the 60 feet, 6 inches, it doesn’t feel like I have a grasp of, and two weeks ago I felt like I could do anything I wanted. That’s how this game is. It’ll slap you in the face when you think you’ve got it. I felt good about it and now I don’t feel good at all.”

The Yankees owe Mussina more than $11 million for next season, but he seems to be nearing the end. It is a scary and sudden reality, and it has knocked him as low as he has ever been.

The Associated Press:

“If Joe thinks that somebody else can give us a lift or do the job better, then that’s up to him,” Mussina said. “I want to keep going out there and figure out what’s going on because I can’t believe in three starts that I forgot how to pitch after 17 years. So I just hope he has confidence enough in me to keep sending me out there and let me figure this out. But at the same time, we’ve got to win ballgames and I’ll understand if he thinks that we need to do something else.

In his last three starts, the 38-year-old Mussina has allowed 19 earned runs in 9 2/3 innings — a 17.69 ERA. Before the staggering slump, Mussina had won four straight starts — giving up eight combined runs — and improved to 8-7.

“He’s had some quality performances for us,” Torre said. “He’s getting older, but you don’t fall off the cliff this fast.”

The Staten Island Advance:

After the bottom of the second inning last night at Comerica Park, Mike Mussina called over Yankees pitching coach Ron Guidry.

“I don’t know what to do,” Mussina said.

“Keep making the best pitches you can make,” Guidry said.

MLB.com coverage:

The Yankees will meet on Tuesday in New York to discuss Mussina’s immediate future; manager Joe Torre said that Mussina tentatively remains on turn to make his next scheduled start on Saturday against the Devil Rays, but that would be subject to change pending an exploratory conference with the veteran righty and pitching coach Ron Guidry.

Names widely floated as possibilities to take Mussina’s place in the rotation have included Triple-A hurlers Kei Igawa, Ian Kennedy and Steven White. But Mussina was not about to concede his rotation spot.

Just a few weeks ago, after Mike won three straight, I thought he could do another three this season to reach 250 lifetime. I figured a 15-win season next year would put him within range of 300 and Cooperstown. But things have gotten lost.

It’s been about 17 years since I picked up Mike’s Score rookie — draft rookie — in a now-defunct Bethesda card shop, and now’s the first time I’ve ever been worried about him. The columns and blogs are calling for exile to the bullpen, and Mike sounds like he’s watching his work from the sidelines. In the blogosphere, the LoHud Yankees and the Psycho Fan have takes on Mike’s psyche this week, and the latter links to River Ave. Blues’ recent “I come to praise Mike Mussina” essay to offset their recent criticism. I don’t take issue with the criticism. It’s their right as fans. My two cents: When a person plays out so many games in his head, failures in the real games invalidate all the thinking.

I don’t think Mike’s playing too many games in his head — more that failure has greater impact on his methods. As someone who’s tried for years to think Mike’s televised pitches into the strike zone, the failure of one’s brain to affect the physical world is always a tiny disappointment. I can only imagine the disconnect when the ball flies back, hard, over your head, repeatedly to the point of being a wild pattern.

I’m looking tonight online for an old Mussina replica jersey from the Orioles days. I’m not ruling out tracking down M&M Boys items either. It’s the most I can do. I’m also hanging my Mussina T-shirt from a shelf. Starting now, it doesn’t come down until a win or retirement. I’m still rooting for wins 250 and 300 for him. He’s Mike Mussina, my baseball hero, and I have to tell you as much because maybe you can root for him too.

Previous Mussina coverage in this blog:
-6/17/07: When moose collide
-8/6/06: Collecting collecting coverage
-6/18/06: “Could Mussina make tracks back to O’s?”
-10/2/05: Mike Mussina’s night at the ballpark
-9/23/05: Welcome back
-10/13/04: In search of perfection