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Helene Elliott

Maddux Needed This as Much as the Dodgers Did

September 16, 2006|Helene Elliott

On a clear, cool evening that hinted at the imminent arrival of autumn, 40-year-old Greg Maddux reached back to the summer of his remarkable career for a pitching gem that kept the Dodgers in first place in the National League West.

Just when the Dodgers seemed ready to let the lead slip through their fumbling fingers, just when it seemed that the toll of 21 seasons and nearly 4,600 innings were blurring Maddux's renowned precision, he held the Padres hitless for 6 1/3 innings and scoreless for seven in a thrilling 3-1 victory at Dodger Stadium.

The Dodgers needed it, not only to extend their precarious lead over the Padres to 1 1/2 games, but to forget the just-completed 4-6 trip in which they squandered two big leads and saw their bullpen crumble.

Maybe Maddux needed it too. He had started his Dodgers career brilliantly but had faltered, compiling an earned-run average of 5.34 in the five starts before he faced the Padres on Friday.

He worked swiftly and successfully Friday. He struck out one and walked three and faced only one batter more than the minimum; when Brian Giles lined an 0-and-1 pitch to right to end Maddux's no-hit bid, the crowd of 52,911 at Dodger Stadium rose to its feet as one and gave him a standing ovation.

Maddux looked uncomfortable, walking off the mound and kicking the dirt as if impatient to maintain his rhythm. He later shrugged off the suggestion that he'd had anything special going in his favor.

"I was effectively wild, if anything," he said. "I didn't throw it where I wanted to, and I think that helped because everyone knows where I want to throw it, anyways."

He threw a mere 68 pitches and said he was more fatigued mentally than physically and ready to leave after seven innings. He had felt a sense of keen anticipation all day and had thrown himself completely into this game.

"It's kind of different when you're out there pitching," he said. "You put the buzz on yourself.

"I mean, I looked at the standings this morning when I got up and I knew that we were a half-game up and we were going to be in first or second when the game was over. I think that puts a little more pressure on yourself before you go out there. But you've got all day to forget about it."

Why he thrives under such pressure when others might cave is something he couldn't explain.

"I don't know if I do or not," he said. "It was a good game. We need to do what we can to try to win tomorrow."

It was more than that: he might have saved the Dodgers' season. He put an emphatic end to a slide that threatened to consume their playoff chances. However, he left others to put his effort and the team's success into perspective. "It's baseball. Sometimes you just win for no reason," he said. "It was one of those nights for us. A good night for us.... It was cool."

It was a tonic for a hot division race.

"I've known him a long time and I know his experience and his competitiveness and expertise in competing in situations like this is as good as anybody's in the game," General Manager Ned Colletti said. "This is one of the reasons we made the deal.... How many big games has Greg Maddux pitched? Has anybody pitched any more big games than Greg Maddux?

"Does that mean he's going to be successful and we're going to win the game? It doesn't mean that. But it means any time that he goes out there that he's experienced in the environment, experienced in the situation and he knows what he's got to do."

Maddux gave them that chance. He also gave them reason to believe that although summer is fading, their postseason hopes need not vanish too. If he could ignore the years and the mileage on his arm and will himself through a game that could turn a season in one direction or another, no one can do less. He set a tone. It's up to his teammates to chime in.

Dodger owner Frank McCourt, exulting that it was "great to be here this time of year playing meaningful games and to have this kind of matchup, back home," was unstinting in his admiration of Maddux.

"When you ask people about the Dodgers," he said, "what's the first word that comes to your mind when you say Dodgers, Dodger history or pedigree, and people say class. And to me, what I think is so appropriate about Greg being a Dodger and having that jersey on is he personifies that class. I think that's a good thing. And I'm proud to see him wearing that Dodger jersey."

He brought honor to it on Friday.

"This time of year you separate the men from the boys," Manager Grady Little said. "It's not always going to be good. You've got to have enough experience to know you've got to turn the page quickly and get ready for tomorrow."

The Dodgers might want to press this page in their memory book, but the schedule is unforgiving. They'll play the Padres again tonight, with more urgency and drama in store.

Maddux did his part to make tonight's game count and the next one and every one after that. The Dodgers can't ask for more. At least until his next start.

*

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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