For Mike Mussina, the first inning of every start is an exploratory venture. He assesses what he has brought to the mound that night, which of his vast array of pitches are working, which ones he can count on for strikes.
Sixteen pitches into tonight's 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Mussina did not appear to have much of anything. Two runners were on base with only one out, and cleanup hitter Fred McGriff was at the plate with a 3-0 count.
Mussina took a deep breath and went after McGriff: a fastball on the outside corner, fouled down the left field line; a slow curve on the outside corner, which McGriff took for strike two; another 92-mph fastball on the outside corner, which McGriff tipped into the mitt of catcher Charles Johnson.
It might have been Mussina's biggest out of the game. From there, he went on to pitch 7 2/3 innings to improve his record to 14-7 and break a streak of three losing starts, the longest such streak of his career, spanning 247 starts.
The McGriff at-bat "was the whole game," said Orioles Manager Ray Miller. "We were looking at bases loaded, one out if [Mussina] walks him."
In two of Mussina's three straight losses, the deciding runs came in the eighth inning, including a three-hitter in Seattle on Aug. 1.
Tonight, the eighth inning found Mussina cradling a 4-1 lead but running out of fuel. Four batters later, after John Flaherty's RBI single, it was 4-2 and Wade Boggs was at the plate representing the potential tying run with two outs and a runner on first.
This time, Miller pulled Mussina, opting for left-hander Jesse Orosco, who retired Boggs on a grounder to first to end the inning. For Orosco, it was the 1,070th game pitched in his career, tying Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm and leaving him one game behind all-time leader Dennis Eckersley.
Mike Timlin pitched the ninth for his 15th save.
"Tonight wasn't textbook," said Mussina, who gave up two earned runs, striking out seven. "But I was pleased with it, considering the last time I was here."
The last time Mussina stood on the mound at Tropicana Field, he suffered through perhaps the worst start of his career. It was April 21, and Mussina gave up a career-high 10 runs in a nationally televised 14-8 loss.
Tonight, Mussina appeared headed toward a ghastly repeat. But the strikeout of McGriff in the first and a double-play ball off the bat of Aaron Ledesma in the second launched Mussina toward a typically well-pitched game.
"He wasn't sharp early on," Miller said. "But then all of a sudden he starts eating them up."
Back-to-back home runs in the fifth inning by B.J. Surhoff -- his 22nd of the season but first since July 16 -- and Albert Belle, his 28th, gave the Orioles a 3-0 lead. Surhoff had four hits to break out of a 6-for-38 (.158) slump.
"I hadn't been good at the plate," he said. "I've been jumpy. Everyone has a down period. You just try to minimize it."
The Orioles stranded 13 runners, twice leaving the bases loaded against starter Rolando Arrojo (2-8), who needed 122 pitches to labor through six innings.
All those stranded base runners began to cause concern for the Orioles around the time Boggs came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth and the Devil Rays trailing 3-0. Boggs already had two hits, pushing his career total to 3,003. But Mussina coaxed a grounder to first, which brought home a run, but paved the way for his escape.
The Orioles picked up a crucial insurance run in the eighth when Jeff Reboulet drew a leadoff walk and scored on Anderson's double down the left field line.
The way Mussina's luck had gone recently, the extra run felt like 10. With approximately 10 starts remaining, Mussina has a good shot at the first 20-win season of his career.
"I'm not thinking about [20 wins]," he said. "I just want to win the next one."