A multiple exposure shows Atlanta Braves Greg Madd

How’d he do that? Magician Maddux fooled hitters all the way to Hall

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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.

[MORE: Maddux also Hall of Fame character  |  Former teammates remember Maddux]

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.

[MORE: Let’s watch Maddux pitch, ask ourselves ethical questions]

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.

[MORE: Maddux will enter Hall of Fame with blank cap]

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.

Julio Urias is on his way back to the majors

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 27:  Julio Urias #78 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the New York Mets during their game at Citi Field on May 27, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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Dodgers 19-year-old rookie Julio Urias is coming back to the majors and Alex Wood is headed to the 15-day disabled list with left elbow soreness, Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times reports. Urias will likely start Saturday against the Braves, which will mark his debut in front of the home crowd.

Urias made his major league debut on Friday against the Mets at Citi Field, but lasted only 2 2/3 innings. He yielded three runs on five hits and four walks with three strikeouts.

Urias came into the season rated as the Dodgers’ #1 prospect and the #2 overall prospect in baseball. Prior to his promotion, he had compiled a 1.10 ERA with 44 strikeouts and eight walks over 41 innings with Triple-A Oklahoma City.

Mookie Betts enjoys a three-homer game against the Orioles

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 31: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox follows his three run homer against the Baltimore Orioles in the second inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 31, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images
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The Red Sox seem to have hit the jackpot on all of their young players so far this year. Jackie Bradley, Jr. just had a 29-game hitting streak snapped. Xander Bogaerts extended his hitting streak to 24 games on Tuesday night. And Mookie Betts has been quite productive batting leadoff for the Red Sox this year, entering Tuesday with an even .800 OPS.

Betts, 23, hit 18 home runs in his first full season last year. With a three-homer night against the Orioles on Tuesday, he’s already up to 12 in 2016 with four months of season left. The first was of the solo variety, a line drive to center field off of Kevin Gausman in the first inning. Betts followed up in the third with a liner to left field for a three-run dinger off of Gausman. He made it three in the seventh, drilling a Dylan Bundy offering to right field.

Here’s video of homer number two:

Betts finished 3-for-5 as the Red Sox won 6-2 at Camden Yards.

The stats show the Pirates as an outlier in throwing “headhunter” pitches

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 5: Reliever Arquimedes Caminero #37 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals in the seventh inning at Busch Stadium on September 5, 2015 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
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Last week at ESPN Sweetspot’s Inside the Zona, Ryan Morrison looked into the data and found that the Pirates stand out among the rest when it comes to throwing “headhunter” pitches. Those are defined as fastballs 3.2 feet or higher and 1.2 feet towards the batter from the center of the plate.

The research was prompted because Diamondbacks second baseman Jean Segura was hit in the helmet by Pirates reliever Arquimedes Caminero last Tuesday in the seventh inning. The next inning, Caminero hit shortstop Nick Ahmed in the jaw with a pitch and was instantly ejected.

Morrison illustrated the data in a nice chart, which you should check out. The Pirates have thrown 93 of those pitches, which is way more than any other team. The next closest team is the Reds at 68 pitches. The major league average is approximately 48 pitches.

The Pirates have had an organizational philosophy of pitching inside since at least 2013, as MLB.com’s Tom Singer quoted manager Clint Hurdle as saying, “We’re not trying to hurt people, just staying in with conviction.”

Morrison goes on to suggest that the Diamondbacks should have forfeited last Wednesday and Thursday’s games against the Pirates in protest, out of concern for their players’ safety. As it happened, the D-Backs lost both games anyway, suffering a series sweep. The two clubs don’t meet again this season.

D-Backs manager Chip Hale said after last Tuesday’s game that Caminero “shouldn’t be at this level”. Caminero responded to those comments today, Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports. “I’m actually glad you asked me about that,” Caminero said. “The only thing I’ve got to say about (Hale) is that he is a perfect manager. And he was a perfect player, too. That’s it. I know what I did wasn’t good, but it happens in baseball. I wasn’t trying to hit anyone.”

I realize I’m late on pointing out Morrison’s terrific article and the whole debacle between the two teams, but I felt it was worth highlighting.

Jose Bautista: “I’d be stupid to leave” Toronto

TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 29: Jose Bautista #19 of the Toronto Blue Jayshits a two-run home run in the fifth inning during MLB game action against the Boston Red Sox on May 29, 2016 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
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Also included in a recent report on Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista by Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated — along with his belief that Rougned Odor was the only bad guy in the May 15 debacle — was the slugger’s desire to remain a Blue Jay. Per Verducci, Bautista said, “I love the city. I’d be stupid to leave” Toronto.

Bautista, 35, is in the final year of a five-year, $65 million extension signed in February 2011. Back in November, the Jays exercised their 2016 club option for $14 million. Bautista isn’t willing to discuss contract details during the season, so the two sides will have to wait until at least October to come to an agreement.

Entering Tuesday’s game against the Yankees, Bautista is hitting .237/.371/.489 with 11 home runs, 37 RBI, and 40 walks, the latter of which leads the American League.