In Yankee-land, Wednesday, September 12, 2007, was a fairly unremarkable today. The Yanks, riding a six-game winning streak, were in Toronto pushing hard for the Wild Card while the Blue Jays were looking to avoid slipping under .500. The Yankees won that game 4-1 despite mustering four hits, and Mike Mussina would emerge the winner, picking up his ninth win of the season. It was the Yankees’ 145th game of the season.
Flash forward nearly nine months to another Wednesday night, June 4, 2008. Again, the Yankees would be playing the Blue Jays. Only, this time, the Yanks would be looking to inch closer to .500 while the Blue Jays were looking to close the gap in the AL East. Again, Mike Mussina would take the mound, and again, he would win his ninth game of the season. It was the Yankees’ 59th game of the year.
What a difference a year makes. Tonight, sitting in the Upper Deck behind the plate, I saw a completely different Mike Mussina than the one I watched slog his way through 5.2 innings in Toronto in September. Rather, this Mike Mussina, throwing many more strikes than the 2007 version, relied on a well-placed fastball and devastatingly slow off-speed pitches to keep the Blue Jays hitters guessing all night long.
Tonight, Moose was again the stopper for the Yankees. He twirled six innings of five-hit ball, allowing one run on one walk and six strike outs. He finished to a standing ovation and lowered his ERA to 4.01. It was just a few weeks ago that I was lambasting Moose for poor pitching against the Red Sox while hoping he could limit the damage to 4.50-4.75 runs per 9 innings.
Well, he’s done that and more basically by becoming a completely different pitcher. No longer sporting a mid- to low-90s fastball, Mussina mixes and matches. He drops in 65-mph curveballs after 88-mph fastballs. He is relentless in pounding the strike zone, allowing just 11 walks in 67.1 innings this season, and he has mastered a new craft at an old age.
So here we sit with 103 games left in the year, and Mike Mussina has a shot at 20 wins for what would be the first time in his career. I ran into an old friend from high school today at the stadium, sitting in the row in front of me. As the game ended, we said our good byes and pondered Moose’s season. Neither of us could believe that Mike Mussina would be the de facto ace of the Yankee staff come June 4.
In parting, we both wondered if this would be the year Mussina finally reached that magically 20 plateau. He needs to win just three games a month here on out, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. Just ask Chien-Ming Wang. In baseball, they say anything is possible. Let’s see this one unfold with a happy ending.
Game Notes: Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Derek Jeter. That’s some rarefied company on the all-time Yankee hit list…The ball really flies off Wilson Betemit’s bat when he makes contact…Nice work by the pen tonight. Mariano Rivera is truly in a league of his own this year…Johnny Damon is 26 for his last 53. That’s a mighty fine .310/.378/.498 line he’s sporting this year.