The key for Mussina was placing his fastball inside to left-handed batters, a benchmark he has used throughout his career. Though Girardi complimented the sharpness of Mussina's curveball and called his changeup "great," it was the fastball that Mussina relied upon most.
"It's been the gauge for me most of my career, and it's been the gauge for a lot of pitchers," Mussina said. "If they can get the ball down and away consistently without it being a lot of work, they're going to have good days."
Mussina struck out two over his five scoreless innings, throwing 64 pitches (41 strikes) and lowering his spring ERA to 4.46. In 9 2/3 innings, Mussina has allowed eight hits and five earned runs, four of which crossed the plate on March 3 against the Astros in Kissimmee, Fla.
In his last start, on March 8, Mussina limited the Rays to one earned run in 2 2/3 innings. The continued progress, and improving location on all of Mussina's pitches, has Girardi contemplating whether better days might be ahead for the 39-year-old right-hander.
"It leads me to believe that he's going to have a good season," Girardi said. "This is his third start, and he's been pretty good in all of them."
Admitting that he didn't have "unbelievable stuff" against the Pirates on Thursday, Mussina said that the proof of his placement was in the results. Jason Bay had the best swing of the afternoon against Mussina in the fifth inning, and it didn't do much for him.
"The hardest-hit ball was right at Derek [Jeter], and it was on the ground the whole time," Mussina said. "If I can keep them hitting the ball on the bad part of the bat, that's all you're trying to do. You're trying to get them to swing at pitches that just aren't quite the pitches they want to hit."
With three Grapefruit League starts remaining before the regular season opens, Mussina said that he is not concerned with his velocity, which he believes will increase before April rolls around.
"If I can get the ball where I want to, I'll be all right," Mussina said. "I'm not going to throw 94 miles an hour, but I can mix it up and move it around, change speeds. Today, most of that was working."
That allowed Mussina to enjoy an afternoon when the designated hitter in his starting lineup has had more box-office hits than base hits.
"You don't have days like this during the season," Mussina said. "The season is about business and playing the game. Today was a little bit more about having some fun."