Mussina's effort almost wasn't enough

Updated: October 13, 2004, 2:04 AM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Mike Mussina was almost perfect -- and it almost wasn't enough for the New York Yankees.

Mike Mussina
Starting Pitcher
New York Yankees
27 12 9 0 132 4.59

Mussina made a run at history Tuesday night by taking a perfect game into the seventh inning in the opener of the AL championship series against Boston. Then he faltered, the Red Sox rallied, and New York had to hold on for a 10-7 victory.

"As well as I was throwing for six innings, it shouldn't have come to that," Mussina said. "That's the best six innings I've had all year. If I knew why it was like that, I would do it every time."

The way Mussina was cruising, nobody expected it to get that close. New York built an 8-0 lead, and it seemed the only suspense remaining was whether Mussina could join fellow Yankee Don Larsen as the only pitchers to throw a perfect game in the postseason.

Mussina sure looked as if he really wanted it. Pitching with a patch of silver stubble on his chin, he was shaking off catcher Jorge Posada -- even with the big lead.

But it was not to be.

After the right-hander retired his first 19 batters, Mark Bellhorn doubled to deep left-center with one out in the seventh. Mussina lowered his head and looked away as soon as the ball hit the bat, knowing his bid was over.

"I made a bad pitch, or a wrong pitch, and he hit it. It wasn't like he hit a chopper over my head, he drove it in the gap," Mussina said. "I'm not disappointed. I've made runs at it before, a lot closer than that."

But he quickly unraveled. One out later, he gave up a single to David Ortiz, and Kevin Millar hit a two-run double.

Trot Nixon's RBIs single chased Mussina, who walked off the mound to a frenzied ovation from the sellout crowd of 56,135. He raised his right hand, a rare acknowledgment from the normally stoic pitcher.

"I think he just got a little tired. He did everything we asked him to do," Posada said. "His curveball was very good, but I thought the velocity and location of his fastball was excellent."

Sitting in the dugout, Mussina seemed to know trouble was coming. He shook his head and muttered to himself, far from satisfied with his performance -- the picture of a pained perfectionist.

"I probably threw the wrong pitch for the first time in seven innings, a couple times in a row," he said. "I think I was disappointed that I couldn't get the third out."

Before Bellhorn's double, the Red Sox hit only three balls out of the infield against Mussina, who struck out five straight batters in the fourth and fifth. That tied his own ALCS record, set in 1997 with Baltimore against Cleveland.

"He was dominating us," Millar said.

Mussina, who finished with eight strikeouts, came within one strike of a perfect game against Boston on Sept. 2, 2001, at Fenway Park. Pinch-hitter Carl Everett broke it up with a looping single to left.

"It seemed like he was mixing up his pitches. He's a tough pitcher. He's especially been tough on the Red Sox," said Johnny Damon, who struck out four times -- three against Mussina. "Not the way I wanted to start the series."

Mussina had been in such control this time, maybe New York's relievers weren't quite mentally prepared to pitch.

Jason Varitek hit a two-run homer off Tanyon Sturtze, and Tom Gordon gave up a two-run triple to Ortiz in the eighth, cutting it to 8-7. But Mariano Rivera, just back from a funeral in Panama, got Kevin Millar on a popup to end the inning.

"Turns out we really needed him. I'm sure glad he came back," Mussina said. "I know it was tough for him. I know it's been an emotional few days."

The Yankees got some insurance in the eighth on Bernie Williams' two-run double, and Rivera closed it out.

At last, Mussina could smile about a job well done.

"He strikes out Johnny Damon three times, that's certainly not easy to do," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "No, it's not going to get lost."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press