After first, Mussina a changed pitcher
Righty settles down as Yankees' lineup pops Twins in opener
MINNEAPOLIS -- Mike Mussina reflected on the day he reported to Spring Training a few months back, admitting his goal for the immediate future was just remaining in the starting rotation. He shouldn't have any difficulty convincing the Yankees to keep him there.
Mussina overcame a rocky first inning to go deep in the Yankees' 6-5 victory over the Twins on Friday, obtaining a share of the American League lead in wins by earning his eighth victory of the season.
"I'm able to do what I want to do with the baseball," Mussina said. "I couldn't do that last year. I'm able to make adjustments when I have to -- like today, for example. I've battled through some games to find a way to get people out. Today was one of those games where if I couldn't change the game plan, I'd have been out of there in two or three innings."
With the benefit of a few subtle yet effective changes in his approach, Mussina kept the Yankees in the game long enough to overcome a three-run deficit, plus some. After being hit around for four runs -- two earned -- in the first inning, Mussina fired five scoreless frames, while New York's offense got to work against Minnesota starter Glen Perkins.
"I thought all along that [Mussina] was going to be a big part of our rotation in Spring Training," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I said it all year long -- you don't forget how to pitch. I'm not surprised, because Moose has made adjustments and he's always been a very, very smart pitcher."
Pounding toward tying their season high with 16 hits, New York took the lead in the fifth, when Alex Rodriguez ripped Perkins' final pitch over Carlos Gomez's head in center field, scoring Bobby Abreu from first base. Melky Cabrera's two-run single to left-center field tied the game in the fourth, erasing the remnants of an early three-run lead that the Twins staked for Perkins.
"We're trying not to do too much," Rodriguez said. "We're not really winning with the long ball. Bobby had a great night, and Melky had a great night. [Hideki] Matsui has been consistent. All up and down the lineup, we've got guys with quality at-bats."
"This is the offense -- we're always on base, we always try to start a rally, we always attack," Abreu said. "This is the way that was outlined. That's how we are, and this is our team."
Matsui's seventh-inning RBI single off Dennys Reyes proved to be the tipping point when, with a two-run lead in the eighth, reliever Kyle Farnsworth challenged Justin Morneau with an 0-2 fastball -- "a stupid pitch," he'd call it -- and watched it deposited over the baggy in right field for a solo shot.
On the same day the Yankees officially ended Joba Chamberlain's service in the bullpen, his replacement had served up a home run. The long ball was Farnsworth's eighth allowed this season, but he settled in to get the next three outs and hand a lead to closer Mariano Rivera, who remained a perfect 14-for-14 in save situations when he struck out pinch-hitter Craig Monroe looking to end the game.
The win brought the Yankees back to .500 at 27-27, the sixth time that they've been exactly .500 in the month of May alone. It was also the kind of game that, last year, might have gone quite differently for Mussina.
His '07 season got off to a sour start at the Metrodome when he strained his left hamstring, and the night was tinged with those kinds of feelings when first baseman Shelley Duncan botched a potential double-play ball for an error, and a hot grounder skipped past Rodriguez at third base for a run-scoring hit.
Four consecutive Twins drove in runs, with Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Delmon Young and Mike Lamb each picking up RBIs. Mussina's pitch count for the inning hit 36 as the Twins batted around, even though Young's hit, a solid single to center, was arguably the hardest-hit ball of the inning.
"You get ground balls and you think, 'Eventually I'm going to get one at somebody or a double-play ball out of it,'" Mussina said, "and it just wasn't happening. A lot of things run through your mind -- do I change what I'm doing or do I not change, because they're hitting ground balls?"
In hindsight, Derek Jeter's diving stab of Lamb's rip up the middle saved at least one run and probably more, as it was flagged and fed to Robinson Cano for a run-scoring forceout. Brendan Harris bounced to Mussina for the final out.
"Jeter's play in the first inning probably changed the whole game, because it got us out of there with only four runs," Mussina said. "To say we got out of an inning with only four runs, it could have been six or seven runs. It changed the whole first inning around, and I was able to hold them down after that."
Few would have guessed Mussina would hang around to accumulate a season-high 109 pitches while scattering six hits, walking one and striking out two. He'd adjusted to pitch inside more after the first inning, busting more bats than he could remember in recent memory and not allowing hard line drives and deep fly outs to rattle him.
"He just buckled down and shut down a pretty good club," Girardi said.
Meanwhile, Perkins was finished after four-plus innings, allowing five runs on 10 hits while walking two. The Yankees improved to 7-2 in their last nine games against left-handed starters after beginning the year 2-9.
"Certainly against lefties, we're feeling a little bit better about ourselves," Rodriguez said. "They were so over-the-top dominant against us. We've patched that hole a little bit."
New York added a sixth run in the seventh inning, when Abreu tripled to center -- one of his two three-base hits in the game -- off reliever Brian Bass and then scored his second run of the game, as Matsui legged out an infield single off Reyes.
"The offense is going to have good days and bad days," Mussina said. "If you can get consistent pitching, then those guys are going to believe they're in a lot of games. If we can get consistent pitching, whether we score three or four or six or seven, we're going to believe we have a chance to win a lot of games."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.