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.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Mariners 4, White Sox 3: Mike Zunino doubled and scored and later he homered to give the M’s the lead for good and Nelson Cruz had three hits and knocked a couple in. Felix Hernandez allowed three over six and that beat James Shields who allowed four over six. That’s just math.

Astros 5, Angels 2: Justin Verlander is now 9-0 as a Houston Astro. He’s 13-1 if you count the playoffs. Either way, he continues to enjoy the hell out of wearing the orange and blue. Er, the other orange and blue. Here he allowed two runs on four hits over seven innings, striking out nine, to go to 4-0 on the year. Albert Pujols did hit a homer off of him, notching his 2,994th career hit, but Jose Altuve and Jake Marisnick went deep for Houston and Alex Bregman hit a three-run double.

Rockies 5, Padres 2: A day after getting shut out in Coors Field, San Diego went six innings without scoring a run off of Rockies starter Jon Gray, who struck out eleven Padres. I’m assuming the list of teams who have been shut out in back-to-back games in Denver is short, but at least the Padres didn’t join that one, later scratching out a couple against the San Diego pen. David Dahl and Tony Wolters each drove in a pair for Colorado.

Nationals 15, Giants 2: With the run support Max Scherzer got he didn’t need to strike out ten and allow only two runs over six innings, but he did. With the fine pitching Scherzer gave the Nats they didn’t need to score two touchdowns and a two-point conversion, but they did. Matt Adams singled and doubled in runs and hit a three-run homer. Andrew Stephenson doubled in runs on two separate occasion and took a bases-loaded walks. Trea Turner got five hits. The Nats had scored just eight runs in the four-game losing streak this victory ended. Here, 14 of their 15 runs were scored with two men out. That’s clutch, or something.

Tigers 13, Pirates 10; Pirates 8, Tigers 3: The Pirates and Tigers have been cursed this year, getting rained out *guesses* seventeen times, so they played two yesterday. Neither starter gave their managers four innings in the first one which you know Ron Gardenhire and Clint Hurdle TOTALLY loved on a doubleheader day. Nicholas Castellanos had four hits, including a homer, and drove in four and teammate Miguel Cabrera had four hits as well in the first-game victory, while Frankie Cervelli knocked in six in a losing cause. In the nightcap, Jose Osuna, who was called up specifically to be the 26-man in the twinbill, hit a three-run homer. He was then sent back to Indianapolis immediately following the game. They should’ve had David Attenborough narrate his day in the same way he’d narrate the weird and sad one-day lifespan of some rando insect on “Planet Earth,” with the homer being like that shining moment the bug got to mate before his head got eaten off or whatever.

Yankees 7, Twins 4: The Yankees won despite another bad start from Sonny Gray, who allowed three runs on six hits in four and two-thirds. Didi Gregorius homered for the fourth game in a row and singled in a run to remain white-hot, Tyler Austin had a three-run shot and Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton each hit a sac fly. The Twins have lost six straight.

Braves 5, Reds 4: The big news was the debut of Ronald Acuña. He went 1-for-5, flying out on the first two pitches he saw, striking out twice but notching his first hit as a big leaguer on an eighth inning single, after which he’d score the tying run on a Kurt Suzuki single. The Braves, who had an early lead in this one that they let slip away, ended up winning it on a Johan Camargo double in the ninth which scored Ozzie Albies. Camargo drove in two on the night. The Braves bullpen — which has not been getting the job done of late — got the job done, tossing four shutout innings.

Indians 4, Cubs 1: Trevor Bauer allowed one run over six and two-thirds and struck out eight while Brandon Guyer, Francisco Lindor and Edwin Encarnacion each went deep for Cleveland. Bad news for Cleveland, though, as Andrew Miller had to leave the game with a tight left hamstring. We’ll update later today when it’s know how long he’ll be out.

Rays 8, Orioles 4: Due to the rain on Tuesday the Rays had to wait an extra day to see their old friend Alex Cobb but it was worth the wait as they tagged him for five runs on ten hits. Joey Wendle had three hits and two RBI for the Rays and Adeiny Hechavarria homered. The highlight of the game, though, was the appearance of Rays reliever Johnny Venters, following a six-year absence from the bigs due to not one, but FOUR major elbow operations, including three Tommy John surgeries. At this point his comeback is a success even if his elbow literally falls off of his arm in his next outing. You know all of those motivational posters that say “DETERMINATION” and “PERSISTENCE” and have, like, a photo of salmon leaping up a waterfall or a beaver building a damn? They should be replaced with Venters simply lifting up a pen or something with his left arm. That he actually threw four pitches in a major league baseball game is amazing.

Phillies 5, Diamondbacks 3: Jake Arrieta outpitched Zack Greinke, allowing three — one earned — over seven innings despite not having his best stuff. Aaron Altherr hit a go-ahead three-run homer in the sixth. It was the first time the Phillies beat the Diamondbacks at home in their last nine meetings.

Red Sox 4, Blue Jays 3: Mookie Betts hit a solo homer in the first inning to put the Bosox on the board and hit a two-run homer in the seventh to bring the Bosox back from behind. I like to say Bosox. Bosox, Bosox, Bosox.

Marlins 8, Dodgers 6: Clayton Kershaw walked six dudes in five innings. That doesn’t happen every day. Heck, it doesn’t happen in three or four days for him, as he hadn’t walked a man in his previous 26 innings and had not walked six in a game since he was a rookie back in 2010. We all have a bad day sometimes, I guess. Marlins starter Trevor Richards, meanwhile, struck out 10 and pitched one-hit ball over 4.2 scoreless innings, leaving due to the pitch count and thus not qualifying for the win. Richards is an independent ball product, by the way, who spent part of last year as a substitute teacher. J.T. Realmuto homered twice and Miguel Rojas went deep for the Fish.

Rangers 4, Athletics 2: Four Rangers relievers combining for four and a third innings of no-hit, scoreless ball to help Texas end the A’s four-game winning streak. Isiah Kiner-Falefa hit a go-ahead single in the fifth for the Rangers. He is the only Isiah to ever play major league ball, by the way. You can look it up.

Cardinals 9, Mets 1Jedd Gyorko hit a two-run homer and Marcell Ozuna hit a bases-loaded single to cap a three-run third inning that put St. Louis up for good. The Cards have won 9 of 11. Ozuna was only 1-for-4 and has been in a horrendous slump, but maybe this breaks him out of it.

Brewers 6, Royals 2Jhoulys Chacin was efficient, in part because the Royals were swinging at everything. He allowed two runs while pitching into the sixth and the bullpen pitched three and a third shutout innings, running their scoreless streak to 28. In turn, the Brewers ran their winning streak to eight. It’s shaping up to be a pretty sweet pennant race between the Brewers and the Cards in the NL Central this year. If you assume, as you should, that the Cubs will step it up too, it could be the most fun division in baseball in 2018.