Yankees ride Mussina to victory

The Yankees needed a big performance from Mike Mussina in Game 1. And that's just what he gave them, writes Jim Caple.

Originally Published: October 4, 2005
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Not to suggest that the Yankees rotation sometimes lacked a certain marquee impact performer this year even with the addition of Randy Johnson, but instead of people talking about Mystique and Aura, this time around manager Joe Torre mentioned "Small'' and "Wang'' in the same sentence at his pregame press conference.

"Chacon, Small and Wang,'' Torre said before New York's 4-2 victory over the Angels, "[in] my wildest dreams in spring training, those names didn't really sound like they were going to pitch the last week of the season.''

Mike Mussina
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesMike Mussina was sharp as he struck out four and didn't issue a walk in 5 2/3 innings.

Chacon, of course, is Shawn Chacon, the former Colorado Rockie with the 4.90 career ERA while Aaron Small is the guy 11 teams gave up on -- including the Devil Rays and Brewers -- before he somehow went 10-0 with the Yankees this year. And Wang is rookie Chien-Ming Wang, who will become the first native of Tainan, Taiwan to start a postseason game Wednesday in Game 2 of the Yankees-Angels Division Series.

That lack of pedigree is one reason to think the Yankees might be vulnerable this October, despite their $206 million payroll. It's also a big reason Torre decided to go with 224-game winner Mike Mussina in Game 1, even if no one quite knew which Mussina would show up on the mound -- the one who threw six scoreless innings in his return from the disabled list a couple weeks ago or the one who got shelled in his next start last week. He became available for Game 1 when the Yankees clinched the AL East title Saturday and was held out of Sunday's scheduled start.

Speaking of that decision ... Isn't it odd that all those Yankees players and fans who complained about Buck Showalter taking out his stars early in the Rangers' season-ending loss to the Angels that gave L.A. home-field advantage, saw no problem with New York scratching Mussina from a game that had much more direct playoff implications?

(End of requisite Yankees bashing, now back to our regularly scheduled column about New York's rotation ...)

"Obviously, Randy can't pitch; he just pitched on Saturday,'' Mussina said. "So it was going to be somebody that didn't have any postseason experience or me.''

"Mike has the experience I want to hang my hat on,'' Torre said, "and it will help the young guys with less experience if we can get the jumpstart.''

In addition to his poor previous start, Mussina hadn't thrown more than 81 pitches in a game since developing a sore elbow in mid-August. "I didn't have any idea what to expect,'' Mussina said. "I knew the two extra days helped me because I didn't have to pitch on Sunday, but sure I had doubts. I didn't know what I was going to get.''

What everyone got was late-vintage Mussina: 5 2/3 scoreless innings, no walks, four strikeouts, 98 pitches -- and one very big leg up on the Angels.

Derek Jeter, who had two hits, a walk and a run in between defeating General Zod and flying Lois Lane to his Fortress of Solitude, said he knew Mussina was on his game right from the start. "With Moose, you can tell pretty quickly. He's a different pitcher when he doesn't have his location and if I'm not mistaken his first pitch was a curveball and he threw it for a strike.''

Mussina also threw many strikes after that as well, so much so that it seemed as if the Angels always went up to the plate with an 0-2 count. They mounted one scoring threat against him in the second inning, but Mussina caught a break when Steve Finley's two-out double bounced into the right-field stands, freezing Juan Rivera at third base. Mussina retired Adam Kennedy on a fly ball to left to end the threat and that was pretty much it.

Of course, things might have turned out differently had left fielder Garret Anderson not been playing so far in on Robinson Cano's two-out, three-run double in the first inning.

We'll never know, though -- all we know is that the Yankees needed a win and Mussina gave it to them.

"Being up 1-0 beats coming into a game thinking you have to win,'' starter turned reliever Al Leiter said. "Hopefully [Wang] won't get too caught up in the hysteria.''

Ah, yes. Mr. Wang. He was 8-5 with a 4.02 ERA in 18 games this season, missed nearly two months with a shoulder injury and approached a record for the shortest press conference Tuesday. Said Wang: "I just want to say thank you to the 23 million people in Taiwan. The expectation of tomorrow's game, just be normal.''

Leiter said it was very big for Mussina to win to make things easier for Wang. "I know that he's new to this country and not having a knowledge of major league history and lore might be to his advantage,'' Leiter said. "Because he won't get caught up in all the history and hype, that's a good thing. Lack of knowledge definitely puts you outside the usual distractions that usually come in the postseason and allows you to do your job, which is making your pitches.''

Well, that's one way of spinning it. And when you don't have Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte or David Wells in your rotation, it's probably the best way to look at it.

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," was published by Plume. It can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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