After all the pain and disappointment Mike Mussina has been through the last several years, this was nothing. This time the line drive merely bore into his right shoulder instead of his face. And his elusive quest for a 20-win season? The way Mussina figures, it's better to see it shot down in August than in the last week of September.
Mussina will come back from today's trauma, when he had to leave the game after being drilled by a line drive in the third inning of the Baltimore Orioles' 9-4 victory over the Chicago White Sox, just as he came back from the line drive that struck his face 15 months ago.
But when he adds today's bit of hard luck to all the other ailments, misfortunes and unlucky circumstances that have conspired to keep him without a 20-win season, Mussina resigns himself to the fact that it simply is not meant to be.
"I assume I'll never win 20," he said today. "Just because."
Mussina, who suffered a contusion of his right deltoid muscle, stayed behind this evening as the Orioles traveled to Kansas City and will undergo a precautionary MRI exam on Monday. Left-handed reliever Arthur Rhodes, who also was hit by a comebacker in the fourth inning today, remained behind to have his bruised left index finger examined by a hand specialist. Both pitchers are listed as day-to-day.
The dual pitching injuries came one day after the Orioles used all seven relief pitchers -- including two of them twice -- in a day-night doubleheader. Left-hander Doug Johns (3-2) pitched 4 1/3 innings today to get the victory.
Jeff Conine's three-run homer capped a six-run third inning against White Sox starter Jaime Navarro (7-11) and capped a remarkable stretch for Conine, in which he has hit .667 (14 for 21) with three homers and nine RBI.
The prolific run support is ironic, of course, given the Orioles' penchant for turning certain Mussina victories into losses or no-decisions via blown saves or lack of offense. Because he left before the fifth inning, Mussina could not be credited with the victory today, remaining stuck at 15-7. "My whole career," Mussina said, "is ironic."
The line drive off the bat of White Sox catcher Brook Fordyce came with one out in the third inning, and sent Mussina to the ground, where he stayed as third baseman Ryan Minor fielded the deflection and threw out Fordyce.
The episode recalled the May 14, 1998, game against Cleveland when a line drive by the Indians' Sandy Alomar struck Mussina above the right eye, nearly ending his career. This time, however, Mussina said he saw the ball and was able to turn his face away. "It wasn't as scary as last time," he said.
Mussina appeared to be grinning immediately after the play. With trainer Richie Bancells and Manager Ray Miller standing by, Mussina tried to throw two warmup pitches to gauge the pain level, but it was too great to continue. After the game, Mussina sported a big, red welt on his shoulder, and the baseball's seams were visible. "Everything considered," Mussina said, "we decided we shouldn't try to push the issue."
Mussina had no estimate for when he might pitch again. He plans to join the team Monday night or Tuesday in Kansas City, and his next scheduled start is Friday in Detroit. He has about seven scheduled starts left to reach 20 wins.
"As soon as swelling gets out of there I'll be able to crank it back up again," he said. "I'm going to do everything I can to be able to pitch again sometime. But if it [requires] taking some serious time off, I'm going to take some serious time off."
In 1994, Mussina had 16 wins in early August, only to see the season ended by a player's strike. He had 19 wins in the strike-shortened 1995 season. In 1996, he had his 20th victory sewn up in his last start of the season, only to see Armando Benitez blow the save.
"I've been a lot closer than this and not gotten it," Mussina said. "I'm not going to say I don't still have a chance. But it's a lot tougher now. I had a chance. . . . I just won't win 20. That's all there is to it."