06/11/08 3:18 AM ET
Maddux on the mound a joy to watch
Veteran's precision, command of game as sharp as ever at 42
It was that way 20 years ago when he was a veritable lad in the employ of the Chicago Cubs. And it was still that way on Tuesday night at PETCO Park, the 721st start of his career and what should have been the 351st victory.
Here's a Maddux moment, a man in command of his craft. It is the fourth inning, the visiting Dodgers and Maddux's Padres tied at 1. The Dodgers have runners on first and third with nobody out. The Dodgers are a virtual lock to take the lead here, aren't they?
And when Matt Kemp hits a laser up the middle, this appears to be even more certain. But this ball doesn't go into center field. It goes into the outstretched glove of Greg Maddux, because Maddux -- unlike many pitchers who are falling off to one side of the mound or the other at the end of their deliveries -- is in perfect position to field anything and everything. And because, even at age 42, the reflexes and the instincts that have won 17 Gold Gloves have not deserted Maddux.
The runner at first, James Loney, believing like any reasonable person would, that the ball struck by Kemp has the sound of success to it, is well off first when Maddux catches the ball. The resulting double play and the three other plays Maddux makes on sharply hit balls during the game lead you to believe that the 18th Gold Glove would be both richly deserved and a matter of time.
"You throw your glove out and sometimes you guess right," Maddux said later, with the kind of droll modesty that has also become his trademark. "Sometimes the ball goes right where your glove is, and I think that happened a couple times."
Maddux pitches six innings, giving up one run, and leaves with a 2-1 lead. The Padres don't hold this lead, because of two seventh-inning catchable fly balls that are not caught, opening the door to a four-run inning and a 7-2 Los Angeles victory.
The three walks he allows are unusual, to say the least, tying a season high. Other than that, it is a typical, highly effective performance from Maddux.
"He's been pitching great, he did his job, what more can you say?" said Padres manager Bud Black.
Maddux is 3-4 this season, but his 3.33 earned run average is obviously much better than his won-loss record. This was the fifth straight game in which he had pitched well enough to win, but finished with a no-decision. Here, he left for a pinch-hitter in the sixth as the Padres attempted to pad their lead, and he had no dispute with that move.
"My spot came up and we had a chance to get some runs there, and I should have been pinch-hit for, absolutely," Maddux said. "But at the same time, it would be nice to be 10 years younger and stay in games a little bit longer, too, you know what I mean?"
If you look at his work this year, you are led to the conclusion that the big difference between Maddux now and Maddux in the midst of winning four straight Cy Young Awards may be quantity rather than quality.
"When you look at Greg, you know that earlier in his career, you just expected seven or eight innings," said Black. "Now you don't see him pitching into the seventh or the eighth innings like he did a number of years ago.
"But he's still very effective. Greg would be the first to tell you that there are some nights when he feels good late in the game and other nights not. He knows his limits. That's where communications are so honest between him and [pitching coach] Darren Balsley, Greg and I, about how he feels on the night that he pitches. There are nights when his limit could be 60-70 pitches. There are other nights when it could be close to 100, it varies from start to start, whereas before, you could always say that he was going to hold his stuff, lots of time through the seventh, through the ninth, into the eighth, whatever.
"But I think that his style of pitching hasn't changed a great deal over the course of his career. The thing that has changed is maybe the velocity. But he's still pitching the same way. The velocity is not the same, but the movement's still there, the change of speeds is still there. And he's still always tinkering with new pitches."
If there was one perception about this Hall of Fame career that the rest of us would change, it has nothing to do with universal esteem for Maddux and his craft.
Over the last two decades, the success of two pitchers established them as the greatest of their generation. And Maddux was always mentioned second, behind Roger Clemens. As it turns out, that was wrong. It might have been understandable, but it was still wrong.
Clemens was "The Rocket," with the power and the heat and the strikeouts, an overwhelming, larger-than-life figure. Maddux was seemingly made of more mortal stuff. A man of medium height and build among the general population, thus small for a Major League pitcher, Maddux's craft was built on guts and guile, intelligence and finesse.
Now, between the two, Maddux can be mentioned not only first, but possibly alone. He is the last man standing, and not just because he is still working from a Major League mound. The only performance-enhancing substances he was involved with came from within his own head and his own heart. This career should be, will be, appreciated, admired, applauded, savored for as long as this game is played.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.