The Yankees may have been eliminated from the postseason, but there's still drama to be had on Sunday, when the Bombers' ace pitcher, Mike Mussina, tries for his 20th win of the season against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
Mussina has been a solid, sometimes dominant pitcher for much of his 18-year career in the major leagues (the first ten with the Baltimore Orioles and since 2001 with the Yankees). He's won almost 270 games, has a degree in economics from Stanford University, and will retire from baseball with enough money to last a couple of lifetimes. So why is he thought of as a hard-luck pitcher? Consider this:
He's won 19 games in a season twice before, and won 18 games three times, without ever making it to 20. In both 1994 and '95, he was on the verge of 20 wins when strikes cut both seasons short. In 1996, he left his final start of the season with a 2-1 lead before the bullpen blew his shot at Number 20.
He's made it to the postseason nine times and the World Series twice, but has never won a championship, though his 2001 Yankees came agonizingly close before ultimately losing Game 7. Also in 2001, Moose came within one strike of a perfect game before Boston's Carl Everett lined a clean single to center field with two outs in the ninth inning.
He's finished in the top 5 in votes for the Cy Young Award six times, placing as high as second in 1999, but has never won the prize. In short, he's had a great career that's fallen just short of the traditional benchmarks of greatness, sometimes through no fault of his own.
Mussina had an awful 2007, finishing 11-10 with an ERA over 5.00 and losing the confidence of former manager Joe Torre. At age 38, he looked to be playing out the string, destined to fall short of both 300 career wins and the Hall of Fame. At the beginning of this season, however, he finally stopped relying on his diminished fastball and became a more cerebral pitcher, changing speeds and using his impeccable control to throw hitters off-balance rather than overpower them.
In accepting his limitations, Mussina was reborn as a pitcher. He's been a joy to watch all year, employing pitches that drop, swerve, dart in and out, and do just about everything but go backwards. When he's on, batters are baffled to the extent that they often don't even take the bat off their shoulders -- he has a higher percentage of called third strikes than any pitcher in the majors this year. He may rarely go beyond the high 80s on the speed gun, but Mussina makes hitters look as feeble as if he were blowing 100-MPH fastballs by them.
Moose's quest for 20 wins hit another speed bump of bad luck in his last start in Toronto on Tuesday. In the third inning, he was struck with a hard line drive just above his pitching elbow. How hard? You could actually see the imprint of the seams on his arm after the game. Mussina managed to get through the fifth inning without allowing a run -- qualifying him for win number 19 -- before calling it quits for the night. He could barely bend his arm the next day, but anything short of amputation won't keep him from taking the mound for the last game of 2008.
I've always enjoyed watching Mussina pitch. He's got a steely intensity on the mound which reminds me of Gary Cooper in High Noon. He's not the most jovial guy in the world, but in post-game interviews you can sense the pride and pleasure he gets from a good outing. His anguish after a bad game is palpable as well. I've heard him say on more than one occasion, with a haunted look in his eye, that he felt so lost on the mound that it was like he'd never pitched before.
Until last year, he rarely pitched so well or so badly that his starts garnered back-page headlines in the New York tabloids. Until this season, he was never considered the team's star pitcher, and even now it's only because Yanks' ace Chien-Ming Wang has been out since July with a foot injury. But since he was acquired by the Yankees eight years ago, he's been a reliable second or third starter who's rarely injured and doesn't miss many starts -- a rarity among the Yankees' high-priced free agent acquisitions.
Mussina's contract is up at the end of this year. Nearing his 40th birthday, rumors are flying that, win or lose, Mussina will retire after today's start. I'm hoping that he finally gets that 20th win. But if it means his Sisyphean journey is over and he's pushed that boulder up the hill for the last time, it'll be a bittersweet celebration for me and countless other Yankee fans. Not to mention anyone who appreciates the art of great pitching.