Mussina's renaissance a salve
With 16th victory, righty continues bounce-back season
NEW YORK -- As Mike Mussina worked out during Spring Training in March, he focused on one thing. He wanted a spot in the Yankees' starting rotation, and he wanted to keep it.
Mussina got the job.
Five months later, not only has he kept his spot, but he has racked up the most wins on the staff.
The right-hander earned his 16th victory Sunday -- his first time with that many wins since 2003 -- and at the rate he has been able to pile up his wins, Mussina has a chance to pick up 20 for the first time in his 18-year career. The triumph also marked his 266th career victory, tying Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Eppa Rixey for 34th place on baseball's all-time wins list.
"I talked about that at Spring Training -- I thought he was going to have a good year," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He's just thrown the ball great, and he's been really consistent. Every start he goes out there, he locates, he changes speeds and he's just in a groove."
The success on the mound has come as a pleasant turnaround for Mussina after a disappointing season in 2007, when he compiled an 11-10 record with a 5.15 ERA. This season, he surpassed his victory total from last year on July 18, when he notched his 12th win against Oakland.
The Yankees have been forced to rework the starting rotation and shuffle pitchers because of injuries to ace Chien-Ming Wang and young hurlers Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy. But Mussina has remained a constant for the club, and his performances have been key to New York remaining in the playoff hunt.
"I was hoping that I'd be important to the club this year," Mussina said. "I was hoping I'd have a role like I've had in the past. Coming off of last year and the way things were setting up in Spring Training, you're not really sure the way it's going to be."
But Mussina has used his experience to his advantage. He fell into an early hole Saturday, giving up three runs and six hits to the first nine Royals batters he faced. They weren't hitting the ball hard off of him, as three of the hits came on well-placed ground balls, but Mussina wasn't satisfied.
"It still looked like they were comfortable at the plate," he said. "And when they're standing in there comfortably, that's something you don't want to see."
So Mussina adjusted. He concentrated on his pitch selection and what he was throwing to certain batters.
"Moose really has a sense of how to pitch," Girardi said. "He has a sense of how to read swings, and I think he knows his mechanics really well. If something's off a little bit, I think Moose, because he's thrown so many games, can correct it on the fly."
A line drive from Esteban German in the second inning deflected off of Mussina's back for a single. It was the final hit the Royals would muster off him. Mussina retired the next 14 batters he faced, striking out five, and walked off the field after six innings to the screams of "Moose" calls.
With approximately six weeks left in the regular season, the 20-win marker is within Mussina's reach. But when asked about what he thought of his chances, the veteran wouldn't look too far ahead.
"Nineteen first. I've got to get to 19," Mussina said. "I'm just pleased I've been able to go out there every time it's my turn and pitch well, and winning games is a bonus."
Samantha Newman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.