Mussina stifles Rays, ends Yanks' skid
Veteran wins fifth straight start after closed-door team meeting
ST. PETERSBURG -- In his eighth year with the Yankees, Mike Mussina has by now realized that no season will pass without a little controversy -- a minor losing skid, an outspoken voice from the owner's suite, a closed-door clubhouse meeting.
The best answer for all those irritations, he's found, is to simply start winning games. Behind the right-hander's strong performance and Robinson Cano's four hits, the Yankees started to climb in the right direction on Wednesday, besting the Rays, 2-1, at Tropicana Field.
Mussina allowed one run and five hits over 6 1/3 innings, winning his fifth consecutive decision since -- coincidentally -- Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner suggested he begin pitching more like the Phillies' Jamie Moyer. Steinbrenner has moved on to other targets, now believing the entire team needs to play "smarter and harder," but Mussina has kept chugging along the same upward path.
"There's no secret to it, there's no trick," Mussina said. "You find some level of comfort and don't try to do too much, and don't take it for granted either. You've got to find a place in between and keep working. When the day isn't good, don't get too upset about it, and when the day's better, don't get too excited about it. Just go pitch."
The resurgent right-hander mixed his pitches and spotted his offspeed stuff with command over an 87-pitch performance, walking one and striking out four. He lowered his ERA to 3.99 and improved to 18-7 in 31 career starts against Tampa Bay.
After a rocky April, Mussina is beginning to make Joe Girardi's consistent confidence in him appear wise, as the manager had repeatedly insisted that Mussina has plenty left in the tank to help the Yankees despite his diminished velocity.
"Moose is just pitching like he's capable of," Girardi said. "He's taking his stuff and he's changing speeds. The [pitch] discrepancy tonight was 24 miles per hour. He's just been good. ... I'm never surprised when a guy has success; especially a guy who has  wins."
The performance came hours after Girardi held the first closed-door clubhouse meeting of his tenure, and on the same day that Steinbrenner's comments criticizing the club's sluggish start were published. Mussina said he took the mound with no added incentive.
"You're certainly not going to go the whole year, playing for the Yankees, without somebody up top talking about you," Mussina said. "That happens all the time. You're certainly not going to go without having meetings -- you've got to have meetings just to have meetings sometimes. It looked good today because we played well."
After scoring just twice in their previous 24 innings entering the game, the Yankees touched Rays right-hander James Shields for runs in both the fourth and fifth innings.
In the fourth, Hideki Matsui rapped a two-out double up the gap in left-center and scored on Cano's single to center, part of an evening in which the second baseman tied his career high in hits and finally got his batting average off the interstate.
"I feel good the last two weeks -- much better than the beginning," said Cano, who finished the night batting .205. "I've been having some better swings and I've been getting some pitches lately. I'm just worried about winning some games. We've got a long way to go."
In the fifth, Morgan Ensberg led off with a single, moved up on a sacrifice and scored on Bobby Abreu's two-out double, a pop fly down the left-field line that found artificial turf.
"Sometimes, it's not how hard you hit them, it's where you hit them," Girardi said.
The opposite held true for the Rays, who threatened against the Yankees in the seventh, but were hurt by an at-'em ball. Mussina started the inning and recorded the first out, but was lifted after a walk to Evan Longoria, earning a mixture of Moose calls from the Tropicana Field crowd of 20,396.
Cliff Floyd greeted reliever Ross Ohlendorf with a single and Dioner Navarro shot a run-scoring hit up the middle, but Ohlendorf was able to escape the inning when Gabe Gross lined to Derek Jeter for a deftly turned double play, nabbing Floyd off the bag with a flip toward Cano, who was also instinctively moving for the ball.
For the Yankees, it was a stroke of good timing, smart positioning and a sign that their luck may be changing.
"We weren't really threatening too much on offense, and once again they got a good pitching performance," Jeter said. "You understand it's a one-run game and you want to close the door there. We got fortunate -- [Gross] hit the ball well, it just was in the wrong spot."
Shields worked into the eighth before yielding to reliever Trever Miller, charged with two runs on six hits over 7 1/3 innings and falling to 0-6 with a 6.86 ERA in seven career starts against the Yankees.
"It's one of those games where you get outpitched," Shields said. "We've been on a pretty good streak, so I just wanted to keep us in the game as long as I could. I've just got to tip my cap to Moose."
Joba Chamberlain struck out three around a walk in the eighth inning before Mariano Rivera came on to retire the side in the ninth, bouncing back from a loss on Tuesday by recording his 11th save in 11 opportunities.
Rivera said the underlying message of Girardi's meeting -- and, it would seem, the entire evening at The Trop -- was motivational.
"We have to go out there and fight -- just don't give up, fight," Rivera said. "If you're going to beat us, you're going to earn it. Just go out there and play hard, and that's all we need to do."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.