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Stepping Up

Cubs find their April savior in masterful Maddux

Posted: Wednesday April 26, 2006 12:00PM; Updated: Wednesday April 26, 2006 12:37PM
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The Cubs have yet to get a start from Mark Prior or Kerry Wood, but Greg Maddux is keeping them in the NL Central race.
The Cubs have yet to get a start from Mark Prior or Kerry Wood, but Greg Maddux is keeping them in the NL Central race.
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Lost in all the hoopla surrounding Greg Maddux's seemingly miraculous mid-life, late-career resurgence -- though, really, shouldn't we have known he had a few more tricks in that rubbery right arm of his? -- is the absolute dead-on perfect timing of it all.

Has any team in this young season, in any young season, needed a pitching pick-me-up quite like the snakebitten Cubs? And has any player been better at supplying that early-season jolt than the slight 40-year-old they used to call the Professor?

Maddux, in his 21st season in the major leagues, has soft-tossed his way to the best April in his Hall of Fame career, leading the league in ERA (a staggering 0.99) and tied for the top spot in wins (4-0). If it weren't for him, the Cubs -- still without gimpy starters Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, and now without first baseman Derrek Lee as well -- would already be buried beyond redemption under the Astros and the Cardinals in the National League Central.

A surprising turn for Maddux and the Cubs? Maybe. But again, shouldn't we have guessed this was coming?

"I've seen him all too many times from the other side," said former Marlins center fielder, and now Cubs' center fielder, Juan Pierre. "The guy's just amazing, you know what I mean?"

We know. We know. The mystery surrounding Maddux isn't so much that great start -- the man is a 300-game winner, after all -- but how he's managing it.

Remember, last year Maddux had his first losing season since 1987. He didn't get his fourth win until early June, and his ERA never went below 3.80, let alone below the 1.00 it is now. He's not a power pitcher -- he never has been -- so he's certainly not blowing people away with his stuff.

Did we mention that he's 40?

None of that seems to matter now. Maddux still can't throw all that hard (he tops out, when the going's good, in the very low 90s). He still gets hit hard on occasion (in his last start, the Cardinals' Scott Rolen smacked three shots off him, the last one a line drive that missed going over the center-field fence by inches).

But somehow -- and Maddux will swear he doesn't know how -- he's turned the losses of last season into wins.

"If he tells you that [he doesn't know], you gotta believe it. I believe whatever he tells me," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said last weekend in St. Louis.

"If Greg has done something different or is thinking something different, or maybe changed a pitch or two, we're not smart enough to figure it out," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "That's what makes him so special.

"I'm sure he's done things different that I'm sure he would choose to share with no one."

Said pitching coach Larry Rothschild, with a smile, "You're not going to get much out of me on that. I will say he's throwing a lot more like he did in the middle of last season."

And from Maddux himself: "I wish I could explain it. Personally, I'm just getting ready to pitch like I always have. I'm just catching a lot of breaks. Sometimes you catch a lot of breaks in this game, and right now I feel like am."

The real truth, or at least a major part of it, is simple: Maddux is in better shape than he's been in years. Maybe ever. After failing to win 15 games in 2005 for the first time since '87, Maddux approached Keith Kleven, a physical therapist in Las Vegas, and asked for help.

Kleven started Maddux on a new workout last November, a couple of months before he normally begins his offseason regimen. The results are speaking for themselves.