Excerpt from The Yankees Index, published by Triumph Books in 2016. Purchase the book here
Mike Stanton was fascinated with teammate Mike Mussina’s control in bullpen sessions in-between starts.
“You could watch him throw and you’d be amazed at his command,” Stanton said. “And at the end of it, he’s ticked off because he missed his spot on two of his pitches. He had that good a stuff and that good a control. He was highly, highly intelligent and the epitome of a perfectionist.”
It is a moment of imperfection for which Mussina is probably best remembered as a Yankee.
That refers to September 2, 2001, in which Mussina and former Yankee turned Red Sox pitcher David Cone locked into one of the greatest pitcher’s duels in Yankees history (or at least Yankees-Red Sox history).
The teams entered the game at Fenway Park in vastly different states. The Yankees were in first place and at the beginning of a stretch in which they won 11 of 12 games. The Red Sox were stumbling, having lost six in a row and held to exactly one run in each of their last four games (including 3-1 and 2-1 losses to the Yankees).
The nationally-televised Sunday Night Baseball game was the perfect stage for the 32-year-old Mussina, who was in the first year of a six-year contract with the Yankees after an illustrious nine seasons with the Baltimore Orioles and a highly successful college career at Stanford.
“Mussina is arguably the greatest free-agent signing the Yankees have ever had,” said YES Network head researcher, Jeff Quagliata, which would mean it ranked ahead of Reggie Jackson and CC Sabathia in terms of overall value..
Mussina entered the day in a groove, with a 1.55 ERA in his previous four starts.
Mussina’s strength was that he got a lot of strikeouts and rarely walked anyone. He currently has the second-best strikeout-to-walk rate in Yankees history, just behind Mariano Rivera.
“Facing Mike Mussina was like battling seasickness,” said former major-leaguer Doug Glanville, who went 4-for-15 against him. “He would go up in the zone then down in the zone and repeat. High fastball, nasty curve, time warp change-up. It was a battle in four dimensions. Up-Down. In-Out. Fast-Slow. Nausea-Headache. The best strategy was Alka-Seltzer.”
|Most K per BB – Yankees History|
Added Yankees coach Willie Randolph in Mussina’s Yankeeography “He was everything a pitcher should be.”
Cone, formerly a Yankees star, was a formidable opponent, albeit one whose best days were behind him. He knew the hitters in the Yankees lineup well, having played with them from 1995 to 2000. Cone also had thrown a perfect game for the Yankees two years earlier.
Mussina was throwing hard, often hitting 95 MPH with his fastball, and with a great changeup and nasty knuckle-curve which dropped dirt-bound to elude hitters’ bats. After Cone pitched a scoreless first inning, stranding Derek Jeter on second base, Mussina got the Red Sox on a pair of strikeouts and a lineout to short.
Thus began a pattern that lasted through eight innings. Cone allowed a baserunner in seven of them, but none crossed the plate.
Mussina allowed nothing. No runs, no hits and no errors.
In the top of the ninth inning, the Yankees broke through, thanks to an error by Red Sox second baseman Lou Merloni and Enrique Wilson’s subsequent RBI double. The Yankees went to the bottom of the ninth up 1-0 and with Mussina on the verge of what Yankees play-by-play announcer John Sterling had previously called “baseball immortality.”
The first two hitters in the home ninth went down, albeit with a little stress. Troy O’Leary grounded to first, where Yankees reserve Clay Bellinger preserved the bid with a diving stop. Merloni then struck out.
Then Red Sox manager Joe Kerrigan did something odd. He sent up Carl Everett to pinch-hit for his catcher, Joe Oliver.
Everett was picked 10 spots ahead of Mussina, by the Yankees in the 1990 MLB Amateur Draft. He’d shown great hitting prowess in 1999, when he hit .325 with the Astros and 2000, when he hit .300 with 34 home runs in his first year in Boston.
But in 2001, he was not the same Everett. In 20 games prior to this pinch-hitting appearance, he was hitting .187. Not only that, he was 1-for-9 with seven strikeouts in his career against Mussina (all of which occurred that season).
It looked like Mussina was going to get Everett again. He went ahead 1-2, than made a decision that likely haunts him to this day. He went with a high fastball and Everett got his quick bat around on it and lined a single to left center field.
“I’m going to think about that pitch until I retire,” Mussina said. “It’s probably just not meant to be.”
Mussina said that for good reason. Close but not quite was an important part of who he was as a pitcher.
“That game sums up his career and his Hall of Fame candidacy,” said Patrick Bohn, a Yankees fan from Ithaca New York, who along with his friend Ryan Vooris, has started a website promoting Mussina’s greatness. “It was so close to being there … and then it wasn’t.”
Mussina is one of many great pitchers who never threw a no-hitter or perfect game. He came close … many times. He took a perfect game into the ninth inning against the Indians in 1997, a no-hitter into the eighth inning that same season, and a perfect game into the eighth inning against the Orioles in 1998.
He couldn’t quite close them out. Mussina threw 10 regular-season complete games in which he allowed two hits or fewer , the second-most of anyone since the start of the 1990 season.
Mussina was also an integral part of two of the Yankees best wins of the 21st century. He threw seven scoreless innings in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS against the Athletics, a 1-0 win best remembered for “The Flip” by Derek Jeter that saved the tying run from scoring.
Mussina also pitched three scoreless innings and escaped a first-and-third no-out jam he inherited from Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the Red Sox in the first relief appearance of his career. The Yankees overcame a four-run deficit to win that game on Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run. They lost the World Series in six games to the Marlins, though Mussina won his only start in that Fall Classic
Mussina never achieved the perfection he was seeking, but he had about as perfect an ending to a career that a pitcher could have, short of winning the World Series.
On the final day of the 2008 season, he pitched six scoreless innings against the Red Sox in Fenway Park to earn his 20th victory. He became the oldest pitcher to reach 20 wins for the first time (age 39).
There was a near-miss aspect to this as well, as the Yankees won the World Series the year after Mussina retired.
He finished his career with a 270-153 record, with 123 of those wins coming for the Yankees. He also won the seventh Gold Glove Award of his career, his third with the Yankees. He was able to retire that offseason with the satisfaction of knowing he’d achieved just about everything he could.
“His career has been overlooked and underappreciated,” Bohn said. “I hope he gets into the Hall of Fame. And I hope that people realize how great he was.”