Jul 25, 2014, 1:01 PM EDT
Greg Maddux is my favorite pitcher. A few years ago I wrote why. For that one, I wrote about my favorite Maddux game, an 84-pitch masterpiece he threw against the New York Yankees in July 1997. Today I’m going to write about the best game I ever watched Maddux pitch live. That was Game 2 of the 1996 World Series. They’re really just about the same game.
Most of the time, when people try to explain the wonder of Maddux, they tend to fall back on how ordinary his stuff was. I’ve fallen into that trap myself. He wasn’t 6-foot-10 like Randy Johnson, and he didn’t throw 103 mph like Nolan Ryan, and he didn’t break off flubbery curveballs like Bert Blyleven or throw heart-stopping change-ups like Pedro Martinez, or pitch with unchained fury like Bob Gibson.
Everything about Maddux seemed so ordinary — he wasn’t big and wasn’t imposing. He could, when he felt like it, throw a 91- or 92-mph fastball, but he never felt like it. He wore glasses much of the time.
The thing is: It was all an illusion. That was why Maddux so thoroughly intrigued me. It was a magic show, a Ricky Jay virtuoso performance where the magician feigns ignorance until the trick is done. His stuff was actually amazing … depending on what you mean by “stuff.” Every pitch of his moved and fluttered and dived and lifted at his command. He struck out more than 3,300 hitters in his career, and while the time was obviously very different, his strikeouts per nine innings (6.06) was almost exactly the same as Bob Feller (6.07). He understood that an 89-mph fastball, when the hitter is looking for something 10 mph slower, has roughly the same effect on hitters as a 99-mph fastball compared to regular fastballs.
“Hitting is timing,” Warren Spahn said. “Pitching is upsetting timing.” Nobody understood that better than Maddux.
He was also a brilliant fielder. Nobody talks about that as being part of a pitcher’s stuff but in many ways it is. If a pitcher can take away a dozen hits year on balls hit up the middle or good bunts, that’s worth a few mph on the fastball, isn’t it? Maddux at his best took away the middle of the field.
And Maddux also understood that people’s common perception about his stuff being average worked to his benefit. The simplest card trick in the world is “Pick a card, any card.” But magicians understand the countless nuances — how to force a card on someone, how to control the card, how to reveal the card. The easier it looks, the more remarkable the illusion. Maddux made it look like he was all but defenseless out there. In reality, though, he held all the cards all the time.
In Game 2 of the 1996 World Series, he walked to the mound in the first inning at Yankee Stadium with a 1-0 lead, and he promptly put sleeper hold on the Yankees and the city of New York. The Yankees hit the ball — they would hit the ball all night — but the hits would not amount to anything. Wade Boggs singled in the first and stayed there after a lineout and groundout. Paul O’Neill doubled in the second and was stranded by two benign grounders. Maddux hit Derek Jeter in the third, but a force play and a caught stealing ended any scoring notions.
The game moved fast, too fast. This was another Maddux trick. He had this unique ability to speed things up so that hitters felt like they were sprinting downhill. He threw strike after strike after strike. In tennis, and in hockey and soccer too, coaches talk about how you want to “take time away” from an opponent. That’s not really a baseball concept, but that precisely what Maddux would do — hitters just felt like they were running out of time. Maddux threw just six pitches in the fourth inning — Bernie Williams hit the ball hard but right at Fred McGriff, Tino Martinez bounced the ball back to Maddux, Cecil Fielder bounced an easy one to shortstop. It was all getting away from them.
You could just feel the helplessness cascading through Yankee Stadium. When a pitcher is just blowing away hitters with blazing fastballs and numerous strikeouts, a crackling energy buzzes through baseball stadiums. Every fan is on the edge of the seat, and they think “Try harder!” or “Swing faster!” But Maddux blunted all those emotions. He sucked energy out of stadiums. The harder you tried, the worse things got. The faster you swung, the more harmless the ground balls. There were three more of those harmless ground balls in the fifth inning. It seemed a moral victory when Joe Girardi at least forced a full count before succumbing.
Good time here to jot down a few of my favorite Maddux stats. He gave up four home runs in 25 starts during the strike-shortened 1994 season. That year, he gave up 28 extra-base hits and prompted 21 double-play balls. He unintentionally walked 14 batters and did not throw a single wild pitch in 1997. Lefties hit .195 and slugged .234 against him in 1995.
It’s fun to compare Maddux with Roger Clemens because they were contemporaries and they finished one victory apart and with about the same number of innings. But they were so different. Clemens’ velocity and the violence of his pitches overwhelmed. He pitched with a snarl. Clemens certainly has a strong case as the more dominant of the two — Bill James has broken this down and believes that Clemens was the better pitcher (and, in fact, perhaps the best pitcher of all time). But it is worth mentioning that Maddux, against odds, had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio and a lower WHIP. It is worth mentioning because watching the two pitch you would never believe it.
Maddux gave up back-to-back singles to Jeter and Tim Raines in the sixth inning of that World Series Game, and for the first time — for the only time — the fans stood and cheered and believed. Wade Boggs stepped to the plate. He watched the first pitch go by for a strike because he always did. Then he grounded to second base for an easy double play. Bernie Williams followed with his own ground ball to second. The threat was over. The fans sat down.
The rest was easy. Two strikeouts — the only two strikeouts of the game — and a grounder surrounded a pointless single in the seventh. Three groundouts and a single made up the eighth. And, with that, Maddux took his leave. Mark Wohlers finished it off in the ninth by striking out the side; I’m sure after flailing at Maddux’s mesmerizing pitches for eight innings, Wohlers seemed to be throwing about 212 mph.
When it was all done, Maddux had thrown 84 pitches and had recorded 19 of his 24 outs as ground balls. Add in the two strikeouts, one caught stealing, one liner to first, and one fly ball to left, you had a ballgame. But my favorite part of all was in the Yankees’ clubhouse after the game, where players sheepishly talked about how they were conned.
“He was throwing nothing special,” Bernie Williams said.
“It looks so easy,” Paul O’Neill said.
“You feel comfortable against him,” Joe Girardi said.
“The ball was right there, we just didn’t swing,” Williams said.
And so on. It was as if they were simply coming out of a state of hypnosis. That was what Maddux could do. In Game 6 of the World Series, the Yankees did get to Maddux. Well, they scored three runs on him, all in one frenetic inning. The magic didn’t always work. But it worked most of the time.
May 30, 2015, 3:03 PM EDT
Harper was hit in the back by a 93 mph fastball from Reds left-hander Tony Cingrani on Friday night.
May 30, 2015, 2:46 PM EDT
After making an early exit from last night’s start against the Reds, Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg has been placed on the 15-day disabled list due to neck tightness.
May 30, 2015, 2:20 PM EDT
Hechavarria injured his left shoulder in a collision with teammate Christian Yelich on Friday night.
May 30, 2015, 1:50 PM EDT
MLB’s Playing Rules Committee was expected to keep an eye on the strike zone this season to see if it needs to be changed for 2016. According to Jon Roegele of the Hardball Times, it continues to get bigger and lower.
May 30, 2015, 12:58 PM EDT
Anthony Rendon’s first attempt at a minor league rehab assignment was halted about a month ago due to an oblique strain, but he returned to game action last night with Double-A Harrisburg.
May 30, 2015, 12:01 PM EDT
Abreu initially injured the finger two weeks ago during batting practice.
May 30, 2015, 11:06 AM EDT
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and catcher A.J. Ellis were ejected from Friday’s game against the Cardinals for arguing about the strike zone with home plate umpire Mike Winters.
May 30, 2015, 10:06 AM EDT
Dior designed the “silhouetted batter” logo in 1968, but didn’t receive official credit until 2009.
May 30, 2015, 9:27 AM EDT
Derek Norris struck out in his first four at-bats Friday night against the Pirates, but made up for it with a walk-off grand slam.
May 30, 2015, 8:55 AM EDT
A quick recap of a busy Friday around MLB, including a sterling performance from one of the best bargains in baseball.
May 29, 2015, 11:59 PM EDT
The Brewers designated reliever Brandon Kintzler for assignment on Friday afternoon but rescinded it and put him on the 15-day disabled list instead.
Tony Cingrani hits Bryce Harper in the back with a pitch, then complains he was too slow getting to first base
May 29, 2015, 11:41 PM EDT
Bryce Harper was hit square in the back with a fastball and had the gall not to sprint immediately to first base. What nerve!
May 29, 2015, 11:00 PM EDT
Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez will make his major league debut on Saturday against the Red Sox.
May 29, 2015, 10:10 PM EDT
Rafael Soriano still wants to pitch and has fired agent Scott Boras in an effort to find work.
May 29, 2015, 9:18 PM EDT
Josh Hamilton hit his first home run of the season on Friday night against the Red Sox.
May 29, 2015, 8:52 PM EDT
Rockies starter Chad Bettis is trying to throw a no-hitter against the Phillies.
May 29, 2015, 8:35 PM EDT
The Mets will be without catcher Travis d’Arnaud a little while longer due to a bone bruise in his wrist.
May 29, 2015, 8:08 PM EDT
The Mariners will lose starter James Paxton for a couple of weeks due to strained finger tendon.
May 29, 2015, 7:42 PM EDT
Stephen Strasburg came out of Friday’s start after facing one batter in the second inning against the Reds.
May 29, 2015, 6:55 PM EDT
More than one in two fans of major league baseball prefer having the pitcher hit as opposed to a designated hitter.
- Nationals place Stephen Strasburg on the 15-day disabled list with neck tightness 1
- Jerry Dior, designer of MLB’s iconic logo, has passed away 8
- Settling the Score: Friday’s results 21
- Tony Cingrani hits Bryce Harper in the back with a pitch, then complains he was too slow getting to first base 112
- Video: Josh Hamilton hits his first home run of the season 16
- Rockies starter Chad Bettis loses his no-hitter in the eighth inning 2
- Stephen Strasburg exits start in the second inning with an apparent injury 5
- More than half of polled baseball fans prefer having the pitcher hit 77
- Tony Cingrani hits Bryce Harper in the back with a pitch, then complains he was too slow getting to first base (112)
- The Big Unit: Wide Angle Watcher (90)
- And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights (89)
- Chipper Jones will fight you if you insult his “girl” (84)
- More than half of polled baseball fans prefer having the pitcher hit (77)