Friday, July 25, 2014

Remembering Greg Maddux in his finest hour

Greg Maddux pitched in 744 regular season games, many in heat filled pennant races with the Atlanta Braves during their nine-year playoff run from 1995-2003, but when he was asked after the announcement of his 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame induction about his best mound performance, he unequivocally responded with a 1995 mid-season game against the St. Louis Cardinals.



Greg Maddux / Jasen Leather
On August 20, 1995, Maddux was the model of efficiency, needing only 88 pitches to shut down the St. Louis Cardinals 1-0. He dueled with Cardinals pitcher Mike Morgan, who matched Maddux by allowing only one run on 84 pitches in eight innings.

It is ironic that Maddux matched up with Morgan in his finest hour. Both attended Valley High School in Las Vegas (Morgan graduating in 1978, Maddux in 1984), learning under the careful guidance of area scout Ralph Meder. As a young kid, Maddux grew up watching Morgan pitch in high school, a teammate of his older brother Mike.

“I knew him at 11 years old when he watched me pitch when he was in grade school,” Morgan said in a phone interview on Friday.

Morgan, who has been actively working to rebuild the youth baseball programs in Park City, Utah, immediately remembered the quick pace of their match-up.

“It was an hour and fifty-three minutes or something like that,” he said. “They barely got a run off of me.”

The Braves scored first when Chipper Jones plated Marquis Grisson in the third inning on a ground out to second base.

With the Cardinals down by a run early in the game, catcher Danny Sheaffer knew that both pitchers were going to be unyielding with their offerings.

Sheaffer got one of the only two hits surrendered by Maddux in that game. Speaking recently with Sheaffer, who is the current manager of the Tampa Bay Rays rookie affiliate in Princeton, W.Va, he recalled the evening well.

“It was obvious from the first inning that one run may be the difference in this game,” Sheaffer said. “Both were in control and [the] hitters knew it; [the] umpires were expecting strikes and made it clear that was their intention, a fast paced, as well as a well-played game.”

Seemingly in a race to get back to the dugout, Maddux struck out nine, surrendering no walks while only allowing two hits — a lead off single to outfielder Brian Jordan in the fifth inning, and a lead off double to Sheaffer in the sixth.

“He’s the best, he’s the best,” Jordan told The Dispatch in 1995. “As long as he continues to do that, he’s going to continue to win Cy Youngs every year. I don’t think there’s another pitcher out there who has such control.”

The Cardinals did whatever they could to scratch a run home against Maddux. Jordan stole second after his single in the fifth, only to have Maddux retire the next three batters, stranding him in scoring position.

“At least I feel like I did something,” Jordan said about his attempt to score.

In the later innings both clubs worked feverishly to tally another run. Maddux and Morgan continued to stifle their efforts.

“[We threw] ten pitches an inning,” Morgan said. “We would get strike three on an 0-2 or a 1-2 pitch. We didn’t go from 0-2 to 3-2 at all that night.”

Positioned behind the plate, Sheaffer could feel the heightened sense of urgency by the two clubs as both pitchers breezed through the lineups.

“Both teams played the game as if one run was going to potentially win,” Sheaffer said. “Both teams focused [on] situational hitting and neither had success; that's how good both pitchers were.”

Taking matters into his own hands while walking to the batter’s box to start the sixth inning, Sheaffer decided on a more aggressive approach against Maddux.

“The deeper in the count we would get with Greg, the more he would force us to hit "his" pitch,” he said. “I didn't want to be in that position.”

Sheaffer took a mighty cut at a first pitch fastball and came within inches of evening the score.

“I came within a foot of tying the game,” he said. “Yes, it was a mistake in location looking back at the tape, but without that mistake we wouldn't have come close.”

Just as Maddux did in the previous inning after Jordan’s lead off hit, he sent the next three batters after Sheaffer down in order, quelling whatever resistance the Cardinals could muster.

Despite the quiet bats of his teammates, Morgan remained firmly entrenched in giving his club the best shot against the junior statesman from his hometown.

“I was locked in,” he said. “He was one pitch better that day.”

Maddux retired the Cardinals in order for the next three innings, diminishing their efforts to match the lone run from the Braves in the third inning.

“He was never overpowering, but in every at-bat he would always give the impression that he could do whatever he wanted to with the baseball,” Sheaffer said.

Although Maddux said that he tired after the seventh, he continued to pound the strike zone with his impeccable control.

“I kept getting the fastball in there,” Maddux said. “That was my best pitch tonight.”

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