So much of Mike Mussina’s career was defined by coming up just short. Finishing with 18-19 wins five times before finally getting to 20. Nine top-six Cy Young finishes without the award. Nine trips to the postseason and no World Series titles.
That would be oversimplifying Mussina’s career, one that was great for both the Orioles and Yankees over 18 seasons. He’s going into the Hall of Fame because he was one of the best pitchers of his era. Maybe never the best in his league — Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson had something to say about it — but a clear, no-doubt Hall of Famer.
And while his teams came up short, he didn’t. In two of the biggest games of his Yankees career, he stood tall and made the difference to push the Yankees to the brink of a World Series they wouldn’t win.
I probably don’t need to remind you about his performance on Oct. 16, 2003. Several innings before Aaron Boone even entered the game, Mussina had the task of keeping the Yankees within striking distance, not letting the Red Sox run away with Game 7 of the ALCS.
Clemens didn’t make it easy, allowing four runs and leaving men on the corners with no one out for Mussina in the fourth inning. Down 4-0, the game could have easily spiraled.
It didn’t: Mussina, making the first relief appearance of his career, got Jason Varitek to strikeout and induced a double play from the speed demon, Johnny Damon. He’d strand two runners in the fifth and go 1-2-3 in the sixth, setting the stage for the Yankees’ comeback.
Fittingly, the other pitcher to go three innings and not allow a run in that game was Mariano Rivera, who will enter the Hall of Fame with him Sunday.
Moose and Rivera would hook up one more time that season, a week later during game 3 of the World Series. With the series knotted at 1-1, Mussina went toe-to-toe with Josh Beckett with seven one-run innings.
The game itself was also 1-1 for the longest time as Mussina recovered from a first-inning run. He mostly avoided trouble but had to escape a runners-on-the-corners jam once again in the sixth inning, making a play at the plate (He was a seven-time Gold Glove award winner after all) before striking out Mike Lowell.
Moose gave the Yankees a chance to break through again with Hideki Matsui hitting a go-ahead single in the eighth. That paved the way for Rivera, who tossed two scoreless while the Bombers padded the lead.
That would be the last chance Moose got on the game’s biggest stage (Not his firs though with two starts in the 2001 World Series). Beckett went on short rest, in part to avoid Mussina, and tossed a shutout in Game 6, depriving the veteran a chance to pitch in another Game 7.
He had his failures for sure: Game 5 of the 2005 ALDS. His final inning in Game 3 of the 1996 ALCS against the Yankees.
But Mussina still made his chances count. It’s a shame he doesn’t have a ring, though a player can’t be held to account for a team’s struggles. Instead, we simply have to appreciate the times he came through on the games’ largest stage.