Mussina lifts Yanks to seventh straight
Righty fills in with 5 2/3 shutout innings; Rivera earns four outs
TORONTO -- The Yankees have not committed to churning out a six-man rotation down the stretch of their playoff push. Yet Mike Mussina may have given them an option to think about.
Rebounding from a horrid skid that saw the veteran right-hander grudgingly take up residence in the bullpen, Mussina took the path to redemption on Wednesday, pitching 5 2/3 innings of shutout ball in the Yankees' 4-1 victory over the Blue Jays. With the win, New York kept a four-game lead over Detroit in the American League Wild Card race.
"I think I just reminded them that I'm still here and I think I can still pitch," Mussina said. "Hopefully, the guys making those decisions will give me a chance to get back out there a couple of more times."
The 38-year-old Mussina worked himself out of the Yankees' September plans by enduring a three-start span in which he went 0-3 with a 17.69 ERA, speaking repeatedly of not feeling comfortable and having ill premonitions as he released pitches.
It was a different story on Wednesday, with Mussina filling in for the sidelined Roger Clemens and handcuffing the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Appearing to own more confidence and able to throw strikes where he wanted, Mussina put up a performance that helped lead the Yankees to their seventh consecutive victory.
"The fact of the matter is, he knows what he's doing," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "He's been down this road before. He's won important games for us before. I think that's the most important thing, what this game did for all of us."
With horses Andy Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang pulling the Yankees' charge toward October, New York's rotation has also welcomed an unproven youth movement. Rookie Phil Hughes beat the Blue Jays on Tuesday, and 22-year-old Ian Kennedy -- who was summoned from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to take a start from Mussina against Tampa Bay -- is scheduled to complete the three-game series at Toronto on Thursday night.
Coming back from a pair of cortisone injections in his elbow, Clemens is still up in the air for Sunday at Boston, further uncertainty that could create opportunities for Mussina, who logged career victory No. 248 by showcasing better velocity and a biting curveball.
"We're going to do whatever we can," Torre said. "Certainly, Moose showed us that we can send him out there, and he's back to being the kind of pitcher that we know he is."
After breaking a string of 498 consecutive regular-season starts with a decent relief appearance on Sept. 3, Mussina was back for more progress. Making inordinate use of his infield defense, particularly second baseman Robinson Cano, Mussina limited Toronto to five hits and three walks, striking out one before yielding a two-on, two-out situation to reliever Edwar Ramirez in the sixth inning.
"It was nice to get back out there and win a ballgame, to feel like I'm contributing to the cause here," Mussina said. "It didn't feel that way for a long time."
Mussina said that, as Torre began his slow amble to the mound in the sixth inning, he had every intention of pointing to a low pitch count (87) and lobbying to stay in for one more batter.
But Torre congratulated Mussina on a job well done and made conversation, simply stalling so Ramirez could throw more pitches in the bullpen. The rookie reliever would toss 10 more on the field to escape, issuing a walk to load the bases but getting Lyle Overbay to fly out and preserve the lead for Mussina, who won for the first time since Aug. 11 at Cleveland.
"I've got to live with that and move on from it," Mussina said of his three poor starts -- two against the Tigers and one at Anaheim. "The other 20 games before that weren't all that bad, so after a while, you let go of those three bad games and focus on the good stuff."
The Yankees made the most of a total of four hits, providing early padding by taking a first-inning lead against Blue Jays starter Dustin McGowan. After Bobby Abreu and Alex Rodriguez walked, Hideki Matsui -- fighting a 2-for-31 skid -- came through with a run-scoring single to left, just his second RBI in 29 at-bats to open September.
"It's been a while since I was able to have a real quality at-bat like that," Matsui said through an interpreter. "In that sense, I just hope this continues on."
McGowan tossed a wild pitch that allowed Rodriguez to scamper home, and New York extended the advantage in the fourth, when Cano came through with a line drive single to left-center field, scoring Matsui and Jorge Posada.
McGowan's evening was finished after five innings, and he was charged with four runs on three hits. The right-hander, just another pockmark on a string of Yankees victories dating back to Sept. 4 against Seattle, walked three and struck out six.
"We're playing good baseball right now," Cano said. "Hopefully, we keep playing like that the rest of the season."
The contest also featured some of the first blemishes in the rise of rookie Joba Chamberlain, who allowed the first run of his career -- albeit an unearned one. After pitching a scoreless seventh, Chamberlain watched an A-Rod throwing error on a grounder hit by Aaron Hill bring home Russ Adams with Toronto's first run.
"Ninety-nine times out of 100, Alex makes that play," Chamberlain said. "We won the game, so that's really all that matters."
That ended the evening for Chamberlain, who was replaced in favor of Mariano Rivera, who recorded a four-out save. The action of replacing Chamberlain -- Wednesday was the first time he had been pulled in the middle of an inning in the big leagues -- actually proved more difficult than anticipated for Torre; laughing, the manager recalled how Chamberlain seemed to slink behind his infield mates, quickly disappearing from view.
The brief moment of hide-and-seek added a moment of levity to an evening when the Yankees may have discovered something much more important. If Mussina needs to be summoned, he should prove infinitely easier to locate.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.