If you didn’t know any better, you would think they were booing the guy.
Instead, each time Mike Mussina notched two strikes on a batter last night at the Stadium, the trademark “Moose Calls” began their patented reverberation amongst the crowd, loud, long, and low, filling the cold air with life. For a pitcher who was supposedly done last season after a horrific three game stretch in August, there was a lot of love circling down to the mound where he stood, feet together, glove to his heart, right arm weighted straight down by his heavy, clenched fist. If Wang’s mound presence reminds one of an ancient, religious statue, than Mussina is the picture of a politician fielding questions at the podium, the slight forward lean his way of engaging the audience better.
A Stanford graduate of noted intelligence, you can almost hear Mussina thinking along with his catcher as he peers in, eyes squinted thin, analyzing each option he is given against a mental history of the batter at the plate. Once a particular selection passes the risk profile for the precise situation in the game, a slight nod is given, and the Republican from Pennsylvania is ready to deliver his speech.
Last night against the Tampa Bay Rays, his pitches were talking.
Whether it was the graceful, soft arc of the knuckle curve, or the in-and-out movement of his deceptive fastball on the corners, the Moose was persuasive enough that the umpires were listening, and the hitters were missing. When he needed a third pitch to drive a point home, Mike floated a changeup toward the plate that stared the likes of Carlos Pena, B.J. Upton and Eric Hinske dead in the eye, induced an excited, wild swing, then disappeared from sight like a surprised fish in water. At times during this final game of the Opening Week home-stand, Mussina looked near unhittable, twisting his words and their meanings any way he wanted, always with the same result – resounding applause.
In truth, he looked like a confident pitcher who has accepted his fate, and learned to adjust, much like an aging candidate would in the primaries against a younger, stronger opponent. To put it another way, he looks like a thirty-nine-year-old Mike Mussina should, which is better than many, if not most, of the twenty-nine-year-old starters in the League.
In the end, he pitched six innings of one-run, two-hit ball, throwing only eighty-two pitches in the process and striking out three, the last of which tied him for 21st place on the all-time strikeout list with David Cone. The eventual win, his 251st, tied him with Bob Gibson on the all-time wins list. Not bad for a guy who was labeled “done” after three bad starts in August last year. Not bad for the 2008 Yankees rotation, which is an entirely different story with an efficient and effective Moose on the mound, exactly the way he was last night at the Stadium.
What was also an entirely different story last night was the Yankee offense. After scoring only two runs on nine hits in the previous game Sunday, you could feel a storm brewing in the Bronx, lurking in the hitting tunnels beneath the old cement foundation, waiting for Tampa’s innocent yet hapless, number five starter, Jason Hammel, to appear on the mound. And when he did, in the bottom of the first inning, Bobby Abreu continued his torrid first week by unleashing a bolt of lightening over the wall to right, giving the Yankees a thunderous two-run lead, just like that. The cheery Venezuelan would finish the game three-for-three, a double away from the cycle, and batting .400 after the first seven games.
In the top of the third, Johnny Gomes temporarily weathered the storm for his Rays by taking Mussina’s one mistake pitch deep and gone to left for a solo home run, and the resulting 2-1 score held firm until the bottom of the sixth. As if realizing that Mussina’s gem was in need of further protection before he officially departed the game, the Yankees whipped-up the winds once more. This time they pushed two all-important insurance runs across the dish on an Abreu triple off the top of the wall in right-center, a broken-bat RBI single by A-Rod, and a scorching RBI double down the line by Hideki Matsui, the ball racing just under the adept glove of Rays first baseman, Carlos Pena, who had been holding the runner. In strategic fashion, manager Joe Girardi had A-Rod running on the crucial 3-2 pitch to Hideki, allowing him to score easily from first.
Two more tack-on runs were scored in the bottom of the seventh, Matsui and Cano making Mother Nature proud during this particular front. With two outs and runners in scoring position, each Yankee pelted the sunny Rays with an RBI single, ratcheting up the score to 6-1 and putting the game out of reach.
For Cano, it was his first RBI of the season, a good sign when such a talented hitter is struggling. For Matsui, who came into the game with a career .331 average against Tampa Bay, he finished the four game series seven-for-fifteen with five RBI, a good sign for any hitter in any country, whether he plays in Japan, the Caribbean, or the Unites States. The Yankees offense would wind up finishing the night with eleven hits as a unit, a great sign for a team headed out on an eight-game road trip to Kansas City, Boston, and back down to Tampa Bay.
Let’s hope that turbulent weather, for the visiting team at least, remains in the local stadium forecasts.
Even after last night’s storm cleared, however, and the bullpen combination of Brian Bruney, Kyle Farnsworth, and Latroy Hawkins held on to the five-run lead, this game was all about Mike Mussina, as it should be. The Republican from Pennsylvania had his pitches talking, and Yankee faithful everywhere were listening.
Yet another sign of good things to come.