Braves lefty Maholm getting better with age
FEB 27, 2013 12:14p ET
Around this time five years ago, the same media outlets from far and wide were camped out in Tampa, Fla., covering Paul Maholm's first taste of national/international exposure.
"Wow, has it been five years?" wondered Maholm last week at Braves camp.
In March 2008, Maholm was a relatively unknown, fourth-year pitcher with the Pirates, just trying to cement a spot in Pittsburgh's rotation. In the previous three seasons, Maholm had compiled 21 major league victories and a respectable ERA in the 4.7 range, but he still needed a standout campaign to substantively launch a promising career built on changing speeds and stealthily locating pitches to elite-level hitters.
Before that could happen in season No. 4, though, Maholm would have to endure the high-profile and surprisingly pressure-filled task of retiring a hitter whose prominence had little to do with baseball performance — minus the great HBO movie, "61*," which he directed.
That would be comic legend Billy Crystal.
On March 13 of that year, one day before Crystal turned 60, the Yankees granted one of their most celebrated fans the ultimate birthday wish — an official at-bat in a Grapefruit League game. And for that Yankees-Pirates clash in Tampa, New York's spring home, Crystal would take on Maholm, who had yet to experience his 26th birthday.
"It happened on my day," recalls Maholm, now an established member of the Braves' rotation. "It's funny, like a week before the (Yankees) game, I figured (pitching to Crystal) would end up on my day. And sure enough, it did. That was probably the hardest hitter I've ever faced, as you're trying not to make a mockery of it and dig in."
Maholm's first delivery to Crystal was a ball. The second pitch was lined foul down the first-base line, drawing applause from the pro-Yankees crowd at Legends Field (now George M. Steinbrenner Field).
The next two offerings were balls, ratcheting up the pressure on Maholm.
The fifth pitch was a swinging strike, moving things to a full count.
The pressure increased. The tension mounted. For a single at-bat in a largely meaningless game during spring training, this was as good as it gets.
On the sixth and final pitch, the southpaw reared back and fired a cut-fastball that overwhelmed Crystal, despite the strenuous swing.
"Obviously, you're trying to throw strikes," said Maholm. "So, it worked out well that he swung and struck out."
The 2008 season would eventually be a feather in Maholm's career cap, as well. He finished at 9-9, with a 3.71 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and rock-solid K/BB ratio of 139-63.
"To me, it was a cool thing. There was media from everywhere there, not just the normal writers," says Maholm, recalling the national interviews before and after the Crystal at-bat. "Me and him did kind of a small press conference (afterward), and it was fun; but once the season started, it was about me being consistent for 31, 32 starts."
After the game, Crystal joked that he and Maholm would inexorably be linked forever in sporting culture, like " Louis and Schmeling now" — a nod to boxing legends Joe Louis and Max Schmeling's epic fights from the late 1930s. Five years later, it's still a good thing for Crystal to be associated with one of baseball's most proficient back-end starters.
With the Cubs and Braves last year, Maholm (13-11, 3.67 ERA) yielded only zero or one run in 14 starts. And from June 29 to Aug. 15, spanning 10 outings and 68 innings, he surrendered a grand total of nine runs ... or 7-1 record, 1.32 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 52/14 K-BB ratio.
For Maholm's sake, that positive mojo will carry over to the 2013 season, especially since he's back in Florida for spring training.
"I've enjoyed Florida. I've been here for nine of my 10 (spring trainings). I'm kind of used to seeing grass everywhere and no (cacti)," says Maholm. "(Spring training sites) were closer in Arizona, obviously, and I guess that makes the travel easier for the position players; but as far as preference, I like Florida better."
Strangely, Maholm's exemplary 2012 campaign began with a resounding thud, as he allowed 12 runs in the first two starts with Chicago. For April 2012, he would average only 86 pitches per outing.
"I got pulled after a couple rough starts, so that probably had something to do with (the middling pitch count)," says Maholm. "Whenever spring training ends, we're conditioned to go 100 or 110 pitches in games. I know it's my personal goal to pitch as well and as long into games as I can ... at least until (Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez) is ready to get me."
In his only spring start to date (Feb. 23 vs. the Yankees), Maholm pitched two solid innings of no-hit, no-run ball.
By all accounts, not one of the seven hitters stretched Maholm to a full count.
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