Mussina one strike away from perfection

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Craig Muder

Mike Mussina had been down this road before.

In three previous big league starts, Mussina had come one hit away from a no-hitter – once one hit from a perfect game. But Mussina had never retired the first 26 batters of a game and advanced to two strikes on the 27th.

On Sept. 2, 2001 against the Red Sox, Mussina and his Yankees were that close to perfection before Carl Everett’s opposite-field liner found the grass at Fenway Park. Neither Yankees left fielder Chuck Knoblauch nor center fielder Bernie Williams had any chance to catch the ball.

“I was disappointed,” Mussina told The Record of Hackensack, N.J., after the game. “I’m still disappointed. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”

Mussina, however, quickly put the disappointment behind him on the mound, coaxing Trot Nixon to ground out to end the game and preserve New York’s 1-0 victory.

Mussina had come within two outs of a perfect game on May 30, 1997, with the Orioles. In that contest, Cleveland’s Sandy Alomar Jr. singled with one out in the ninth. And on July 17, 1992, against the Rangers and Aug. 1, 2000, against the Twins, Mussina had pitched one-hitters – losing the no-hitter in the fifth and seventh innings, respectively.

But this time seemed different. Mussina had benefited from a splendid defensive play two batters before Everett when Yankees first baseman Clay Bellinger robbed Troy O’Leary on a grounder to the right side to lead off the ninth – diving to snag the ball and then flipping it to Mussina to get the out. Bellinger entered the game in the top of the ninth as a pinch-runner and scored the game’s only run on a double by Enrique Wilson.

After Lou Merloni fanned for the second out of the ninth – Mussina’s 13th strikeout of the game – the Red Sox sent Everett to the plate to pinch-hit for Joe Oliver. Everett finished his career with a .303 average against Mussina, but had been 1-for-16 in his previous five games in 2001. When Everett last faced Mussina on May 24, 2001, he struck out four times in four at-bats.

“When Belly makes that play, it’s supposed to happen,” Yankees manager Joe Torre told The Record. “He got ahead of Everett, who is a free swinger, but Moose threw a high fastball that got a little too much of the plate.”

Mussina was more succinct.

“I’m going to think about that pitch until I retire,” he said.

Facing Mussina that night was David Cone, who threw a perfect game for the Yankees – the fourth in team history – on July 18, 1999. Mussina’s would have been the fifth.

“I was completely aware of what he was doing,” Cone said. “Part of me wanted to see history, but part of me didn’t want to see him do it, because I was the last one to do it. He was so close.”

When Mussina was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2019, he reflected on his career close calls – including the near perfect game.

“I did a lot of ‘almost’ stuff,” Mussina said. “Those things didn’t happen, but things turned out OK. Now I get to say that I went to the Hall of Fame.”

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series