by Harold Friend
Mike Mussina once was a dominant pitcher, but never was he more masterful than on the night of Sept. 2, 2001 against the Boston Red Sox, when he came within one strike of pitching the fourth perfect game in Yankees' history.
Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre noted, as he watched Mussina warm up in the bullpen before the game, that he was taken aback by the sharp drop on Mussina's curve ball.
"It looked the same as David Wells' curve ball on May 17, 1998."
Mussina and David Cone Were in a Scoreless Game
By the sixth inning, Mussina had 11 strikeouts and had retired the first 18 batters on 70 pitches, but Red Sox pitcher David Cone, who had pitched a perfect game on Joe Torre's birthday in 1999, was pitching his best game of the season.
It was a scoreless game and remained that way until the Yankees' ninth inning.
The Yankees Score in the Ninth Inning
Tino Martinez led off with a single, but Jorge Posada flied out to left.
Paul O'Neill hit a double-play grounder to second base, but Lou Merloni couldn't handle the hard shot. The ball went into right field as Martinez advanced to third.
Clay Bellinger ran for Martinez and scored the game's only run when Enrique Wilson grounded out to first.
Mussina Had Come Close to a Perfect Game Twice Before
Mussina went out to the mound for the ninth.
Shea Hillenbrand hit a hard ground ball that appeared headed for right field, but Bellinger, who was playing first base after having run for Martinez, made a great diving stop to his right and threw to Mussina, covering first, for the out.
Mussina, who had retired the first 25 Cleveland Indians in 1997 before Sandy Alomar singled in the ninth, and who had retired the first 23 Detroit Tigers in 1998 before Frank Catalanatto doubled, thought that after Bellinger's great play this would be the time.
Carl Everett's Pinch Hit
Mussina struck out Merloni for the second out, bringing up Carl Everett, pinch hitting for Joe Oliver. Mussina had faced Everett on May 24 and struck him out four times on fast balls.
Mussina got ahead, 0-2 and then missed with a high fast ball.
The former Baltimore Orioles' right-hander paused, stared at the ground, and took Posada's sign. The crowd was eerily silent.
Mussina fired another high fast ball.
Everett ended the perfect game with a clean hit to left field.
Trot Nixon grounded to second to end the game.
It Felt As If We Lost
"I'm disappointed, obviously. I'm still disappointed. I'm going to think about that pitch until I retire. I guess it wasn't meant to be," Mussina said.
Torre, who had been in the stands for Don Larsen's World Series perfect game in 1956, poignantly stated,
"It was supposed to happen."
But Bellinger summed it up best. "It felt as if we lost the game."
Olney, Buster. "Mussina Misses Yankees' 4th Perfect Game by One Pitch." New York Times. 3 September 2001, p. A1