Don’t let the scoreline fool you: Mike Mussina is living on borrowed time.
His fastball during last night’s 6-1 win over Tampa Bay at Yankee Stadium wasn’t particularly fast—MLB.com’s Gameday listed his initial 85 mile-per-hour fastball offering as a changeup—and his once-great curveball was merely good. This will not be good enough against the American League’s better lineups.
Mussina has built a solid Hall of Fame case on a pair of factors—dramatic difference in velocity between his good fastball and excellent curveball, along with above-average control. But Mussina’s maximum velocity is down considerably, eliminating one of his advantages. It also has led him to nibble off the corners, trying desperately to expand the plate—and eliminating his other major advantage.
He threw just eight pitches in the first inning, as Tampa was quick to recognize how easy Mussina is to guess-hit against. With a curveball and changeup both hovering around 70 miles per hour, hitters can just wait for either, while gearing up for an 81-85 MPH fastball (with the rare 86-87) if Mussina finds the plate with one.
In the second inning, only B.J. Upton waited Mussina out. Three straight fastballs missed the mark, putting Upton ahead in the count, 3-0. Mussina next threw a get-me-over strike, and followed with a gift call on a pitch off the plate. Upton then swung at a 3-2 curveball and grounded out.
Tampa Bay didn’t take advantage of Mussina’s diminished command over the rest of the inning, seeing just five pitches. Mussina got ahead of Eric Hinske 1-2, then threw one of his best pitches of the night, an 87 MPH fastball in on Hinske’s hands. Willy Aybar followed by swinging at the first offering, an inside fastball with a fair amount of plate, but getting just under it, he popped out.
Even though he was facing the bottom of the lineup, Mussina’s weaknesses were exposed in the fourth. Against Jonny Gomes, Mussina’s first pitch was a fastball too inside to tempt, his second a fastball that grabbed the corner, and his third pitch a fastball that missed away. Mussina came back with a changeup right down the middle, and Gomes hit it out of the park.
Weak-hitting Mike DiFelice followed with a two-pitch groundout, but Jason Bartlett then let Mussina throw him five fastballs—and he found the plate with only one of them. Then Akinori Iwamura got ahead of Mussina 3-1, but didn’t take advantage of a hanging curveball, grounding out to second.
Mussina found his old curveball in the fifth inning, briefly returning to the break he got in his prime. He made quick work of Willy Aybar and Gomes with his best curveballs of the night. But the flickering light went out again. DiFelice, who has said he always had trouble hitting Mussina’s curveball, let two go by as they fluttered high out of the strike zone. Mussina tried to put him away with his fastball, and DiFelice was able to smack a double. Then Mussina ran a full count to Jason Bartlett. He then hung a curveball—fortunately for Mussina, Bartlett didn’t take advantage, flying out to center field.
In the sixth, command deserted Mussina again. After pitching effectively to Iwamura, Mussina threw three straight out of the zone to Carl Crawford, then grooved a fastball down the middle—but Crawford grounded out. He fell behind Carlos Pena 3-0, came back to 3-2, then hung a curveball—but Pena grounded in to Cano at second, reaching on a throwing error. He then fell behind Upton 2-0, but Upton chased a curveball low and out of the zone on a hitter’s count, grounding to third to end the inning.
For all the hype about the new and improved Tampa Bay, the Rays had three hitters that presented any threat to Mike Mussina—and none of the three did much with Mussina’s many mistakes. Quitting while they were ahead, the Yankees lifted Mussina after six innings and just 82 pitches.
The planets were aligned perfectly for Mussina to succeed Monday night—a young, impatient team, a weak overall lineup, and hitters that did not take advantage of most of his mistake pitches. As the season wears on, his velocity isn’t likely to improve—leaving him even more at the mercy of his diminishing command.
For want of a better option, the Yankees need to ride Mussina for as long as they can. They also need to start looking for a Plan B.