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Braves Have to Hope That Maddux Plays Santa for Them Now

Game 3: Atlanta counting on its ace to get back into National League championship series with Padres.


SAN DIEGO — Although they're in trouble in the National League championship series, the Atlanta Braves figure things could be worse.

The San Diego Padres have outperformed them in taking a commanding-looking 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, which the Braves acknowledge is discomforting. And their suddenly shaky play is stirring concern about another postseason flop.

But the good news for the Braves, they believe, is that Greg Maddux is scheduled to start Game 3 today at Qualcomm Stadium. Who better to pitch in a seemingly must-win situation than the four-time Cy Young Award winner.

Of course, even that silver lining may disappear.

Maddux--for unexplained reasons--struggled after the All-Star break. He allayed some concerns in a strong outing in the division series clincher against the Chicago Cubs, but questions remain.

Atlanta is counting on Maddux, and how he fares may help determine whether the Braves begin their off-season earlier than they anticipated. The right-hander is on the hot seat, which is fine with him.

"This is great," Maddux said. "This is what the game is supposed to be all about. As a competitor, these are the situations you want to play in. This is better than Christmas."

And just as stressful.

Only two teams in NL championship series history have advanced to the World Series after losing the first two games. No team has won the pennant after dropping the first two games at home.

A 3-0 deficit? Forget about it.

"Obviously, we're in a tough spot, but we've come back from tough spots before," Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox said. "We've got the people to put together a winning streak, and the guy on the mound knows what he has to do.

"He's on top of his game right now, and I would expect him to throw a great ballgame. He's done it a lot of times for us."

Maddux is considered the most complete pitcher of his generation. He continued to add to his impressive resume this season, going 18-9 with a league-leading 2.22 earned-run average and a career-high 204 strikeouts.

The 12-year veteran led the league with five shutouts, and opponents batted only .220 against him. And Maddux's nine complete games were the most he had in three season.

But something happened to him in the second half. He finished the season 6-7--getting hit hard often.

In four of his September starts, Maddux went 1-2, with a no-decision, and a 6.58 ERA. That removed him from consideration for another Cy Young Award, and initiated speculation about his physical condition.

"I'm fine, really," Maddux said. "Sometimes it's just a funny game. You get away with mistakes sometimes, you give up less runs than you probably should, and sometimes you give up more than you probably should.

"I never felt I was really all that out of sync. I think it's easy, over a short period of time, to have two or three games kind of inflate things."

Maddux won his final start of the regular season. Then he pitched well in a 6-2 victory over the Cubs in Game 3 of the division series last Saturday, giving up seven hits and two runs in seven-plus innings.

"He had a shutout against a good-hitting Chicago Cub team a few days ago, through the eighth, and he didn't struggle all that much [in the regular season]," Cox said. "For Greg Maddux, yes, people would think he had struggled. But if you watched the ballgames, and saw the hits, he got the ball up a few times, and they hit it.

"When you're a ground-ball pitcher, some are going to get through. It happened a few games in a row to him, that's all there really was to it. Only Greg could have the year he had, and everybody wonder, 'What's wrong with the guy?' "

Maddux accepts that.

"They make a big deal out of everything--the wins too," Maddux said. "It goes both ways, that's part of it. You expect it."

"But all of that doesn't matter now. The only thing that matters now is how I pitch [today]."

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