by Ryan Hubbard
On this day in 1986, current LA Dodger and future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux made his professional debut for the Chicago Cubs. Maddux entered the home game against the Astros, featuring starters Nolan Ryan and Jamie Moyer, in the top of the 18th and pitched a full inning, though he gave up a homer to Billy Hatcher that ultimately cost the Cubs the game--handing Maddux his first loss. Maddux now has 225 losses and 354 wins, which is most among active pitchers and tied for eighth all-time with Roger Clemens.
Here's my favorite memory of Maddux at Wrigley Field.
On Thursday, August 11, 2005, the Cubs opened up a four-game series against the Cardinals, the reigning NL champs. Maddux was in the second year of his second stint with the organization and came into the game 8-9, facing a 13-5 Mark Mulder. Triple-crown threat Derek Lee helped Maddux's cause with a three-run, 430-foot surface-to-Waveland missile in the fourth, his first of two HRs in the game, that gave the Cubs a five-run cushion on their way to an 11-4 win and Maddux's first complete game in a year. But what stuck with me most afterward was Albert Pujols's third at-bat against Maddux, in the top of the fifth.
Pujols's first four seasons in the bigs, 2001-2004, were one of the best starts in the history of the game, and he hadn't slowed down in '05 (he'd go on to win the NL MVP). He entered the game 6-14 (.429) with two HRs and one strikeout versus Maddux. By the time Pujols emerged from the on-deck circle in his third plate appearance, the Cardinals' nine, one, and two hitters had rallied on two outs to produce two runs and men on the corners. With Pujols representing the tying run, the table was set for a dramatic turn in the game. Having given up eight hits and four runs in just 4 and 2/3 innings, Maddux clearly did not have his best stuff. Yet nobody was warming up in the Cubs bullpen. "Surely they'll walk him," I blurted out loud from section 226, some 40 rows back between home and first. Second base was open, and Pujols had already deposited one Maddux pitch into the left-center bleachers in the first like it was batting practice. Why would they take this chance?
Barrett didn't budge from behind the plate. I noticed that Pujols and Maddux, two players known for their cool poise, seemed more animated than they were in the previous two at-bats. Both were taking extra time, adjusting things, looking each other's way a lot, then looking down or elsewhere. "OK," I thought, "so Maddux is going to pitch around him, hoping Pujols might swing at some bad pitches."
The first two pitches were balls outside. Pujols didn't nibble. I've rarely seen Pujols swing at a bad pitch--he has some of the best eyes in the game and for a power hitter doesn't strike out often. No intentional walk but it looked like Maddux might be pitching around him. The next pitch was a fastball down the plate, which Pujols took. I didn't know it at the time, but Maddux had never walked Pujols (and still hasn't in 41 at-bats). The crowd didn't react much to the strike, but it made me nervous. Why bother giving such a hot slugger something to hit? "Throw two more high and outside and let's take our chances with Jim Edmonds."
I guess I forgot I was watching one of the greatest control pitchers of all time. Maddux's next pitch was the most beautiful of the entire game. Risking that the ball wouldn't hang over the middle of the plate and float in Pujols's wheelhouse like a tee ball, Maddux delivered a curve that started way inside. It didn't hang--rather it hung on, slicing the inside part of the plate. Pujols may have been thinking fastball away because his first step was quick, and his upper body leaned forward a bit. The speed clearly messed up his rhythm, and the location handcuffed him. Strike two. Pujols quickly stepped out of the box, and I swear he grimaced. Like he knew Maddux had just snuck one by him. Maddux, now with a businesslike demeanor, quickly stuck his glove up, caught the crisp throw-back from catcher Michael Barrett, and strode back to the mound.
The 2-2 count in a high-pressure situation is one of the most intriguing counts in baseball. The pitcher is a strike away from a strikeout, which would get him out of the jam, and the batter has to be worried he'll see just one more pitch--yet the pitch doesn't have to be a strike. On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, Maddux threw a change-up. Pujols was committed to swinging but didn't appear to be expecting something off-speed. He lunged forward and whiffed, looking uncharacteristically awkward and unbalanced.
Maddux looked down and made a fist as he returned to the dugout. Pujols inhaled deeply as he looked up and away, then very deliberately took off his helmet and batting gloves, handing them to the batboy while staring out, expressionless, toward first base.