Astros drop spring game to Yankees

KISSIMMEE, FL At 39, he can't afford to miss his spots this season.

Mussina struggled with two-strike command in his first spring training start Monday, giving up a three-run homer to Carlos Lee during the New York Yankees' 7-6 victory over the Houston Astros.

"I felt pretty good. I just didn't get the ball where I wanted to, especially with two strikes," he said. "I can get to two strikes. Right now I don't have an out pitch."

The right-hander allowed five runs -- four earned -- and six hits in two-plus innings, not exactly the debut he was looking for after an inconsistent 2007 season. He threw 33 of 40 pitches for strikes, but yielded three straight hits to start the third and departed after Lee's long drive to left on a 1-2 fastball.

A 250-game winner, Mussina temporarily lost his spot in the rotation last year as New York was fighting for a playoff berth. He bounced back with a solid finish, going 3-0 in five late-season outings to end up 11-10 with a 5.15 ERA, but the Yankees need stability from him at the back of a young rotation this year.

"I'm not in pitching shape," said Mussina, entering the final season of a $23 million, two-year contract. "You just don't jump back out there and have it right back the way it was. It's frustrating because I felt good enough to throw better than that, but I just didn't pitch very well."

No longer a staff ace with that crisp, pinpoint fastball, Mussina said he bypassed a vacation this winter in part because he didn't want to interrupt preparations for his 18th major league season.

"Kind of," he said. "And we got pets so I had to stay home. Two dogs. Don't ever get two dogs at the same time."

Mussina, who throws to his brother off an indoor mound at his home in Pennsylvania during the offseason, also said nagging injuries set him back last year. He was on the disabled list from April 15 to May 2 with a strained hamstring that he thinks led to ailments in his back, knee and foot.

Always a stickler for his routine, Mussina said those aches and pains prevented him from maintaining his regular throwing and workout regimen.

This season, new Yankees manager Joe Girardi thinks Mussina will have his fastball around 87-91 mph.

"I think we'll see better velocity because I think he's healthier. I think his legs are healthier," Girardi said. "I think he threw better than the numbers indicate."

Houston starter Wandy Rodriguez gave up four runs and six hits over 2 1-3 innings in his second start this spring. The left-hander, slated for a spot in the middle of the rotation, struck out three in two scoreless innings last week against Cleveland.

"This being my fourth year, I feel like I belong. I feel a lot more comfortable," Rodriguez said through a translator. "I want people to realize that I'm not just a rookie lefty anymore. I want people to know that I can do well on this level.

"I want to be able to pitch over 200 innings and win over 15 games for this year to be a success," he added.

Shelley Duncan, competing for a regular role at first base, had two hits and two RBIs for the Yankees. He is 4-for-7 (.571) this spring with a homer, two doubles and seven RBIs.

Robinson Cano also improved to 4-for-7. He had three hits against Houston, including a two-run single.

Notes: Yankees LF-DH Hideki Matsui skipped batting practice for the second consecutive day because of a sore neck. ... Yankees RHP Jeff Karstens, fighting for a spot in the bullpen, pitched three shutout innings.

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