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Mussina stars as Yanks inch closer

Mussina stars as Yanks inch closer

NEW YORK -- In the darkest moments of Mike Mussina's rotation exile, he pondered his baseball mortality, admitting that he had only a finite amount of time remaining in clubhouses.

Yet as bad as Mussina's worst three starts were, he was convinced that he still had it in him to be better. For the second straight start, Mussina proved it on Tuesday, shutting the Orioles out for seven innings in a 12-0 Yankees victory that carried important playoff implications.

"I wasn't ready to be the pitcher that I was there for a while," Mussina said. "I wasn't ready to do that yet. I had to figure out what was going on. Fortunately, we got things going in the right direction."

Mussina's three-hit, six-strikeout performance came at just the right time. While the Tigers lost at Cleveland, opening up a 4 1/2-game advantage for New York in the American League Wild Card race, the Red Sox also fell at Toronto. The win moved the Yankees to within 2 1/2 games of Boston in the AL East, their closest position since April 20.

Yankees manager Joe Torre said his players saw the scores go up as finals, their attention drawn by the roaring cheers of 52,685 fans at Yankee Stadium, but he cautioned that any celebrations were premature.

"We still have work and cannot allow ourselves to get caught up in what people assume is a foregone conclusion," said Torre. "We need to play baseball."

As the Yankees move closer to what would be their 13th consecutive postseason appearance, Mussina's resurgence has permitted the Yankees to experiment with a six-man rotation. His 249th career victory should further push the envelope as far as consideration for a playoff start; Mussina's 12 2/3 scoreless innings since returning to the rotation in a Sept. 12 fill-in at Toronto for the sidelined Roger Clemens certainly stand out.

"They gave me a chance to get back out there, and I've done pretty well," Mussina said. "Maybe they'll give me another chance or two. We'll see."

Working efficiently and throwing first-pitch strikes, Mussina even contributed his share of defense. He started a nifty 1-6-3 double play in the first inning and flagged a hot Nick Markakis line drive in the seventh, before dirtying his uniform atop the left shoulder a batter later by attempting a difficult play up the third-base line on a Miguel Tejada tapper.

"If they keep hitting those three-hoppers back to me, I'll keep picking them up and throwing them to first," Mussina said. "I can do that."

While Mussina supplied some of the acrobatics, the Yankees had the muscle. After four scoreless innings, the Yankees got to Baltimore starter Jon Leicester for six runs in the fifth inning, highlighted by Doug Mientkiewicz's three-run home run into the right-field loge, part of a four-RBI evening for the part-time first baseman.

"I was looking to get the ball past the pitcher's mound," Mientkiewicz said. "I didn't feel real great tonight at the plate, but it's amazing how this game works. It can change in one swing."

Mientkiewicz was not even in the Yankees' original lineup on Tuesday, inserted when Jason Giambi reported to the stadium and said that his right foot -- bruised by a hit-by-pitch on Monday -- would make him a no-go.

After hitting .154 in April and missing most of the campaign with injuries suffered on a June 2 collision at Fenway Park, Mientkiewicz has made the most of an unexpected opportunity, surging back to the lineup by stroking five hits in eight at-bats as a starter, collecting five RBIs.

"I'm not as bad as I was the first month, that's for sure," Mientkiewicz said. "I'm just trying to stay within the game, and whatever's needed at that given moment, just do the job and keep the line moving."

The evening also put an end to slumps for two long-suffering Yankees. Hideki Matsui had three RBIs, including a two-run double off Leicester in the fifth. Melky Cabrera, entering the game in a 1-for-27 skid, tacked on a two-run single and a sacrifice fly.

Robinson Cano also had three hits and two RBIs for New York, which broke the game even wider open with a five-run seventh facing Francisco Cabrera and Rob Bell. The blowout became the Yankees' 11th win in 13 games, moving them a season-high 23 games above .500 at 87-64.

Mussina's 10th win extended his AL record to 16 consecutive seasons with double-digit victories, though he wouldn't call the accomplishment easy. Torre said that he has not yet allowed himself the luxury of pondering playoff scenarios, which could also include competition from rookies Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy.

But Torre has always favored veterans, which means the 38-year-old could very well have the edge going forward, despite his August swoon.

"I've seen more of this than I've seen that," Torre said. "I've talked so much about experience and guys you trust. He's been a big pitcher for us all these years and been so consistent. Every time you handed him the ball, you knew he knew what he was doing."

No longer tentative or defensive, Mussina said he threw about "eight or nine" different types of pitches; in his ill-fated Detroit start on Aug. 27, a 16-0 Yankees loss, Mussina said he'd been reduced to just a fastball away, a cutter away and a curveball because of a total lack of confidence.

In Torre's thought process, Hughes and Kennedy could still be players. Mussina's goal is to force reconsideration.

"I haven't had the smoothest year, and when you get to the postseason, Joe has to really believe in the guy he's sending out there," Mussina said. "Maybe one of these other guys, he believes in a little more, because of the type of year I've had. If I can earn back some trust here in the last couple weeks of the season, maybe he'll give me a chance."

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

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