Originally created 10/01/97

Vintage Maddux in opener



ATLANTA - Search back through the decades for the game's greatest pitchers and brush the dust from such names as Mathewson, Johnson, Koufax and Gibson.

In another 10 years, add a slight, near-sighted right-hander to that list.

Greg Maddux pitches like no one else.

"Picasso," Houston Astros left fielder Luis Gonzalez said admiringly. "Paints in, paints out."

In two hours and 15 minutes Tuesday afternoon, Maddux painted a masterpiece.

Pitching baseball's first September postseason game in 42 years, he got the Atlanta Braves started on the road to what they hope is another World Series with a 2-1 victory over the Astros in the opening game of the division series before a crowd of 46,467 fans at Turner Field.

That kept Maddux perfect this season in day games, 11-0 with a 1.84 ERA, and undefeated at 3-0 in four career division starts.

"I'd like to think I could pitch better than I did today," Maddux said.

If he does, the Hall of Fame may grant him immediate induction.

Maddux got all the support he needed from Kenny Lofton's manufactured run in the first and Ryan Klesko's sixth career postseason home run the next inning. Working on eight days rest, he pitched a seven-hit complete game, issuing one walk and striking out six.

"This series still has a long way to go, I hope," Astros manager Larry Dierker said.

Making their first appearance in the playoffs in 11 years, the Astros lost despite out-hitting the Braves 7-2. They wake up this morning down a game in the best-of-five series with their best pitcher unable to work again until a possible Game 4.

Darryl Kile, 1-3 with a 1.69 ERA in five career games against Maddux, is undoubtedly wondering how much better he must pitch to beat the Braves. He went seven innings and made just one mistake, leaving a curveball hanging over the plate to Klesko in the second inning. Klesko, who said before the game he was looking for fastballs from Kile, swung and hit it into the right field grandstand.

"He threw three nasty curves and one I could hit," Klesko said.

Klesko's homer was the Braves' last hit of the afternoon. Their first was a bloop double off Lofton's bat in the first inning. Lofton advanced to third on Keith Lockhart's fly and scored on Chipper Jones' sacrifice fly to left field.

"We have two hits and we score two runs," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "It's a funny game."

The two runs was just enough for Maddux. He worked the first three or four innings without his best stuff, leaving many pitches up in the strike zone, but the only hitter to take advantage was Kile. He had a pair of singles, the second one in the fifth inning driving in Tony Eusebio from third base.

"You've got to be aggressive against Maddux," Astros second baseman Craig Biggio said. "When you get a good pitch you've got to do something with it because you're not going to get many to hit."

The key to Maddux's success was his attention to the first three hitters in Houston's lineup - iggio, Derek Bell and Jeff Bagwell. The trio were 0-for-8 and struck out three times, none bigger than Bagwell's swinging strike three at a Maddux changeup in the eighth.

It was the game's defining moment, the only occasion when Bagwell reached the plate with a runner on base in four at-bats. Pinch hitter Bob Abreu opened the inning with a single and stole second during Bagwell's two-out at-bat.

Maddux stayed away from Bagwell with fastballs, worked the count to 3-2 and came inside with a changeup.

"It was the only pitch he threw me in all day," Bagwell said. "It comes out of his hand fastball and all of a sudden the bottom drops out."

Said Maddux, "I'm trying to keep it in the park. That was about it. Just try to keep it in front of the outfielders and hopefully he will hit it to somebody behind me. He missed."

On Sept. 12, Maddux was leading the Rockies 1-0, but came out after eight innings, having made only 88 pitches. He received some criticism for departing and it wound up costing him 20 wins.

This time, with the game on the line, he didn't leave.

This time the master finished up another masterpiece.