- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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Age is a politically incorrect subject among 30-something athletes, and even more so to those in the Outer Limits -- 40 and up.
So when Mike Mussina is asked about his surprising numbers this year, he fires off a question in return. "Is it surprising because I'm getting old?"
The Yankee right-hander smiles, of course, feigning that he's taken offense. He knows the odds were against a turnaround season in 2006, especially after suffering a mysterious elbow injury last summer.
But Mussina and Tom Glavine are both proving it's never too late to discover a new pitch, or a different pitching philosophy. In Mussina's case, a late-diving changeup has strengthened his fastball, helping him keep the American League to a .218 average, the lowest of his career.
And Glavine now throws a curveball that keeps right-handed hitters honest on the inside corner. Even though the Mets lefty stumbled against the Phillies on Tuesday night, allowing four home runs in a no-decision, he nevertheless was the major league's first nine-game winner and is fueling what's turning into a runaway summer for the Mets.
"I guess the biggest difference is that I'm putting doubt in a hitter's head as to what pitches I'm going to throw and when," Glavine said before the Mets' 9-7 win at Citizens Bank Park.
Specifically, Glavine works up and down in the strike zone -- changing a hitter's eye level from pitch to pitch -- instead of inside and outside as he did for so many years. That's the adaptation Glavine has been forced to make in the QuesTec era, when umpires all but eliminated the corner strike.
Glavine used to prosper by whispering his changeup over the black, getting panicked hitters to chase as they went deeper into the count. "Expanding the zone," is how he describes it. But with that option no longer available, Glavine now concentrates on varying high and low strikes.
"It's not just a change of speeds anymore, but a change of elevation, too," he said. "It wasn't an easy adjustment because I never had to worry about it. But it's coming."
Indeed, Glavine's former manager, Bobby Cox, said last month, "Tommy's throwing the ball as well now as he ever has. We just can't hit him."
Mussina, by contrast, already had one of the game's deepest arsenals, featuring that crazy knuckle-curve that's poison to most hitters. But a creaky elbow robbed him of precious miles per hour off his fastball late last summer. After returning from the disabled list in August, Mussina allowed the American League to bat .314 against him, resulting in a 6.53 ERA.
By October, Mussina's vulnerabilities were on full display. He allowed the Angels five runs in 2 2/3 innings in Game 5 of the Division Series, ending the Yankees' season.
This spring, however, Mussina's universe had morphed, almost as if he were in a time tunnel.
"I'm doing some different things, throwing a few more changeups," Mussina said. "But the big thing is I felt good coming out of spring. I was throwing the ball right. So in April, it didn't feel like it was already the middle of the season. I felt better between starts. Throwing 80 pitches didn't feel like it was 115."
With an 8-2 record, Mussina has replaced Randy Johnson as the Yankees' ace, and his 2.76 ERA places him third in the AL behind Jose Contreras and Roy Halladay. Mussina is also second in the league in strikeouts, but more importantly, his strikeouts to innings ratio is better than it's been in four years.
"Mike has gotten to the point where he can look at a spot [in the strike zone] and hit it," says Yankees manager Joe Torre. "He's not trying to manufacture velocity anymore. He's got it now."
Glavine and Mussina aren't alone in finding new weapons. Here's a small sample of other, older players who are experiencing a rebirth of their own.
Curt Schilling: There were plenty of questions whether the Red Sox's ace, who will turn 40 in November, would rebound after a subpar 2005 season. Schilling was bothered by chronic ankle problems, and was never in good enough shape to keep his ERA from surging to a career-high 5.69.
This year, however, Schilling's ERA is more than two runs lower, while the American League batting average against him has dropped by almost 70 points. Schilling has stabilized Boston's rotation, which has been undercut by Josh Beckett's 5.26 ERA, David Wells' chronic knee problems and the fact that Matt Clement (6.68 ERA) has pitched into the seventh inning just once this season.
Schilling is so in sync, he didn't walk a batter in five starts before finally issuing one in eight innings on Tuesday against Minnesota.
Nomar Garciaparra: Garciaparra, who will turn 33 next month, is a tale of two players. The one who's been chronically injured since 2001, and the hitting machine who's finally gotten healthy in 2006 and has regained his place among the game's elite hitters.
Garciaparra's .359 average would be tops in the National League, were it not for a muscle strain earlier in the season that kept him out of the lineup and robbed him of the necessary at-bats to qualify. Still, the Dodgers have seen enough of the converted first baseman in his 181 at-bats to know the former American League batting champion has regained his touch.
"People who are expecting him to fade are going to be waiting a long time," Derek Lowe said recently, emphasizing Garciaparra's average -- 38 points above his career mark -- is no fluke.
"This is who he is," Lowe said.
Garciaparra told the AP his renaissance can be traced to two factors: being healthy and returning to his West Coast roots.
"I've been happy other places," Garciaparra said. "I loved Chicago, I loved Boston. [But] now I'm home."
Tom Gordon: At 38, Gordon has reinvented himself not just as the Phillies' closer, but one of the most efficient ninth-inning specialists in the National League. That's no small achievement given his age, and the fact that he'd spent two years serving as Mariano Rivera's set-up man in the Bronx.
The Yankees liked Gordon's fastball and old-fashioned 12-to-6 curveball, and tried to sign him to another two-year contract. But Gordon wanted to go back to closing, which he had mostly done from 1998 through 2003. Setting up for Rivera only whetted his appetite for his old job description.
"Mariano works so hard, he expects so much from himself," Gordon said. "He helped me understand I'm the same way."
Gordon has been almost perfect so far, converting on 18 of 19 save opportunities, allowing just 17 hits in 28 innings while striking out 37.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Mike Mussina tops a short list of veterans who are doing quite well this year after being somewhat down in recent seasons.