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02/27/08 5:45 PM ET

Mussina needs no added motivation

Humbling '07 gives righty reason to prove worth as starter

TAMPA, Fla. -- It was a play right out of Mike Mussina's 2007 lowlight reel, watching a bad-hop grounder improbably find an infield divot and shoot strangely over shortstop Derek Jeter's head for a single.

If it were the regular season, Mussina might have winced or kicked at the mound. But since this was just an intrasquad game -- one Mussina pitch on his own volition -- this one could be chalked up to just a little weird luck.

Besides, at a camp in which Mussina has been challenged to prove he can still mow Major League hitters down, there are plenty of other fights the veteran will have to save his energy for.

"A normal spring for being 39?" Mussina said. "I don't know what that is. It takes a lot of work. There's a lot of people out there who want to do what I do. I've got to stay after it and be ready to go."

After a largely disappointing '07 campaign, Mussina comes into Spring Training this season in a role he finds completely unfamiliar.

For the first time since his chest trumpeted Orioles black and orange, Mussina is being asked to earn his spot in a big league rotation, warding off a quick-moving rush of promising young pitching talent and the inevitable creeping of time.

Thanks in part to his track record and a resume featuring 250 big league wins, Mussina receives the benefit of the doubt. But after finishing last year 11-10 with a 5.15 ERA in 27 starts and one relief appearance -- the first of his career during the regular season -- Mussina also understands he cannot be complacent.

"I won't go cruising along as if it was eight or nine years ago," Mussina said. "My role can change, and I know that."

That fact was best exhibited last August, when a string of poor starts removed Mussina from the rotation. The Angels put up seven runs against Mussina in 1 2/3 innings on Aug. 21, and Mussina served up six more runs in an Aug. 27 start at Comerica Park, a 16-0 embarrassment that prompted the Yankees to make a switch.

"There were a lot of days that I didn't know what in the world I was doing," Mussina said.

Joe Torre, not Joe Girardi, was the Yankees' manager then, but the new skipper's finger was close to the pulse. A former batterymate of Mussina's, Girardi examined the statistics and the video from those games.

Though he understands why those games -- plus an Aug. 16 loss to the Tigers at Yankee Stadium -- stick out sourly to many, Girardi is quick to counter that Mussina also had a few good days.

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"If you're young and you have a real bad month, they say you're not ready," Girardi said. "If you're in the middle of your career and you have a bad month, they say you had a bad month. But if you're old and you have a bad month, they say you're done."

Mussina challenges the notion that he is running out of bullets, even though his velocity has dropped in recent seasons. After suffering a strained left hamstring on April 11 at the Metrodome, Mussina said that his body never quite recovered.

"The whole year was just a fight," Mussina said. "It wasn't a lot of fun."

For various reasons, a sore knee, a bad back and a hip problem followed. Mussina also revealed that he sprained his right foot during the first week of June, stepping awkwardly on a Yankee Stadium dugout step after batting practice.

But Mussina was never oblivious to the cavalcade of injuries befalling the Yankees, prompting rookie starters to turn New York's rotation into a revolving door. Long before the Yankees raised the mayday flag for Roger Clemens, asking the veteran to ride in like some kind of high-priced baseball John Wayne, Mussina understood his role was to suck up the discomfort and get the job done.

"If I could physically go out there and do it, I needed to," Mussina said. "If nothing else, to eat up innings and give the guys behind me at least the feeling that we were going to have a chance to win the game."

Mussina said that he believes he is in better shape now, which certainly has been helped by the Yankees' cardio-intensive training regimen -- implemented in part to ward off injuries like the one that cost Mussina two weeks last year.

Mussina said that he appreciates the confidence being shown in him by Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman, who consistently paint Mussina as an essential member of the starting rotation.

"We're counting on Moose," Girardi said. "It's not an accident that he has over 200 wins and that he's been healthy his whole career. Moose knows how to pitch."

With Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy in place, plus a group of big league-ready rookies knocking on the door, it would have been easy to farm Mussina out as a long reliever. He's not ready for that step just yet, if at any point.

"I knew that I wasn't going to just stroll into camp and be a starter my whole career," Mussina said. "I have to go out there and prove that I can still do it. Maybe it's time that I get pushed again."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.