Tuesday, April 18, 2006

better than advertised

when greg maddux was signed to this club before the 2004 season, it was supposed to be as the fifth starter behind one of the best young starting pitching staffs in the game. kerry wood, mark prior, carlos zambrano and matt clement were widely expected to carry the northside nine to a playoff appearance that year as they had the year before. maddux was seen as one of the few needed minor additions to a well-rounded club.

how perceptions have changed. in the minds of many cub fans, clement went from one of the hallowed young guns to an inconsistent "head-case" as he was let to leave in free agency. wood and prior, having borne the brunt of dusty baker's mistrust of the 2003 club's bullpen in the stretch drive, fell to pieces beginning in spring camp and neither have been healthy since. zambrano continued his matriculation if not his maturation in the majors, growing in dominance in each succeeding year much as most cub fans would have thought certain as 2003 expired -- but never quite shedding his youthful vicissitude and capacity for self-inflicted damage. and the cubs, of course, went from dreams of certain pennants to the reality of third- and fourth place mediocrity which the club was fortunate to avoid in 2003 by the virtue of a stunning september.

of that lot in early 2004 of which so much was promised and so little realized, only maddux has withstood to exceed every expectation. when signed, many talked of him as though the cubs had signed a sort of player-coach, expecting little enough from the game's venerable craftsman. a price tag of $9mm was thought exorbitant, perhaps, but the price of rectifying the sins of 1993.

maddux has sinced opened many eyes in chicago as to how well spent $9mm can be. in his first start of his fifth decade, maddux last night tossed eight magical innings of three-hit baseball as only a master can. working both corners, featuring an exceptionally sharp breaking pitch to accompany his darting fastball and change, maddux turned spacious dodger stadium to his advantage by confronting batters early and often. when the underrated olmedo saenz flied out to the warning track in center in the second on what would turn out to be the best swing of the evening for the dodgers, this writer smiled -- and kept smiling.

watching maddux pitch was occasion for this writer last night to put his little girl to bed at half past seven, spend some some talking with his lovely wife and tuck her in as well at nine -- and then venture to the fridge for a beer and a bag of chips to settle in front of the telly. it is one of the great rewards of being a cub fan to watch this estimable virtuoso expound upon his trade in the service of this team's victories, an event unto itself that makes baseball worth watching.

this page sincerely hopes that as much is noted by the cubs front office following this year, as well as the statistical measure of his worth: a team-leading 71 starts without missing a turn, a team-leading 459 innings pitched, 301 strikeouts, just 73 walks, 4.00 era, team-leading 1.18 whip and team-leading 32 victories against 26 losses (.551) for a team that has gone 176-160 (.523) in that span. while maddux is certainly past his prime, he is still the most reliably good pitcher this chicago club has on staff and retains the capacity to be spectacular -- and that, on a team as star-crossed as the cubs, is worth something.

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