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Mike Mussina was the unsung cornerstone of the 2003 Yankees

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The righty had a campaign worth remembering.

Mussina gets set to pitch Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

We all remember the moment: a lifeless Tim Wakefield knuckleball floating toward the plate, an Aaron Boone jackknife swing, the seismic euphoria in the stands of the old Yankee Stadium as his 11th-inning home run slayed the rival Red Sox and sent the Yankees to the World Series.

Boone’s dramatic blast is the indelible high-water mark of the 2003 season, yet somehow it’s not the memory that first comes to mind when I remember that club. Instead, I think of the reliable excellence of Mike Mussina, the cornerstone of an aging rotation and the guy whose gutsy performance helped make possible the rapture and sweet release of Boone’s game-winner.

Mussina was vital to that unforgettable ALCS Game Seven triumph. His three shutout innings of middle relief kept the team alive after Roger Clemens came up short against Pedro Martinez, and the Yankees’ season threatened to slip away.

Moose came on for Clemens in the fourth with no out and men on the corners, trailing 4-0 with a run already scored that inning. In an act of escape artistry that would make Snake Plissken proud, he proceeded to strike out Jason Varitek and induce a massive double play from Johnny Damon.

In the fifth, Mussina worked around the heart of the Boston lineup, surviving a pair of one-out singles from Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez before punching out Ortiz. He then coaxed an inning-ending groundout to Derek Jeter from Millar.

Mussina set the sixth down in order, picking up his third strikeout of the night. When he had first taken the mound, the Yankees had just an 8% probability of winning the game, per Baseball-Reference. When he walked off after the top of the sixth, bolstered the inning before by the first of Jason Giambi’s two solo shots, that probability had more than doubled to 17% — a real puncher’s chance, which was all the Yankees needed.

The right-hander’s clutch performance wasn’t guaranteed. He had faltered earlier in the series, losing Games One and Four to Wakefield. His crucial cameo in Game Seven was a moment of redemption, and a testament to his grit.

The 34-year-old used his decisive ALCS appearance as a springboard to success in the World Series. He went seven frames in his winning start against the Marlins, striking out nine and allowing a lone run.

The victory gave the Yankees a critical 2-1 lead in the series, inching them tantalizingly close to another championship ring. But the bats subsequently fell silent, scoring just seven runs as the Marlins swept the next three games. Unfortunately, Mussina didn’t appear again that series.

Admirable as his late postseason exploits were, his whole year was excellent as well. He led the starting rotation in innings (214.2), strikeouts (195), ERA (3.40), FIP (3.09), ERA+ (130), and WHIP (1.081). His fine 2003 season relieved much of the burden on Clemens and David Wells, both 40 years old, and was part of a stellar late prime that is overshadowed by near-misses.

His Yankees career landed neatly between two World Series victories in 2000 and 2009. And he came just two Mariano Rivera outs away from a title in 2001, the same season he also fell one strike shy of a perfect game against the Red Sox, broken up by a Carl Everett bloop single.

Mussina’s personality made him easy to overlook, too. He wasn’t a legendary bulldog like Clemens, a heart-on-his-sleeve gamer like Wells, or a beloved homegrown workhorse like Pettitte; he was a relative loner, sometimes perceived as aloof, who spent his downtime doing crossword puzzles.

But as his 2003 season (among many others in his eight years in the Bronx) and his big-time appearance against the Sox proved, he was every bit as much a competitor. Plus, as further evidence, we’ll always have this classic moment to look back on:

None of this is to say Mussina isn’t fondly remembered by Yankees fans. I’m only suggesting the margin between a respectfully warm reception and full-blown hero status was agonizingly thin for him.

While Mussina recently secured his spot in the Hall of Fame, his new bust in Cooperstown bears a blank cap. I’ll always wonder if a Yankees logo would have been etched there if the cookie had crumbled slightly differently: if he’d clinched the perfect game in Fenway; if Rivera had hung on for the save in 2001; if he’d retired just one year later; and if those great 2003 Yankees had fulfilled their promise and overcome the Marlins that October.

When a Yankees squad achieves that ultimate success, every contribution — from an elite regular season to a brave Game Seven — grows in stature. But if the team doesn’t capture the final prize, some of its finest moments might be doomed to obscurity. It’s why, despite the magic of that Aaron Boone bomb, I’ve preserved Mike Mussina’s 2003 as the embodiment of that Yankees season, a wonderful year that will always leave me asking, “what if?”