NEW YORK -- Back on May 20 when Greg Maddux was 4-3 with a 5.02 ERA and the question of what's wrong with the four-time Cy Young winner was raised daily, he felt no sense of panic.
He made a slight adjustment in his mechanics, knowing that it would make a difference, but also knowing that it wasn't only a mechanical flaw that had played havoc with his record and ERA. So, how does he explain the contrast between his first nine starts and his 4-2 record and 2.76 ERA since then?
"I wish I knew," Maddux said. "I don't think I was as bad as I was in May and I don't think I'm as good as I've been the last couple of starts."
While Maddux certainly has sharpened the location of his pitches, that doesn't completely explain the sharp contrast in the first six weeks of the season and the last six weeks.
While he wouldn't use the word directly, he acknowledged there's a certain amount of luck involved that tips the balance between success and failure.
For instance, Mets cleanup hitter Mike Piazza came to the plate twice in the early innings of Friday night's game and hit a pair of rockets, which were turned into three outs.
"People say there's a fine line between winning and losing, and there is," Maddux said. "How many times do you give up four runs and win and turn around and give up two runs and lose? Go figure."
This isn't to suggest Maddux simply has been luckier in the last six weeks than the first six, simply that he's had a few more things go his way.
Even so, there was never any sense of concern from him when the league was hitting .350 against him and his ERA was two and a half runs higher than his career ERA.
He credits former Yankees and Cubs closer Goose Goosage for teaching him how to keep things in perspective.
"He always told me, don't get too high or too low and I looked at him and said, `What a bunch of hooey,' " Maddux said. "But he did it. Twenty minutes after a game he was the same guy. Does that make you a better pitcher? I don't know, but it makes you enjoy your job a lot more."
Since joining the lineup, rookie first baseman Randall Simon has been swinging a hot bat, hitting .478 in his last 15 games, boosting his overall average to .333.
But, while he's been the club's hottest hitter, it hasn't translated into increased production. He has only one homer and eight RBI in 114 at-bats and is hitting .129 with runners in scoring position.
Still, the league's pitchers apparently haven't figured out a way to get him out, especially now that he's begun showing more patience at the plate.
"They're pitching me all kinds of ways," Simon said. "You can see they're talking to other pitchers. They might throw a ball and make me chase it and I hit it and then they say, `O.K., what do we throw him now?"'
Simon never will be the type of hitter who draws 75-100 walks a year, but he's getting better at not swinging at anything that's in the same area code. In his first 32 games he drew just five walks, but in his last 14 games he's accepted seven free passes.
"At first I was swinging at everything," he said, "but playing every day makes you adjust. Now I just look in one zone until I get two strikes. If they come near where I want it, I try and hit it hard somewhere."
Gerald Williams spoiled Matt Franco's major league pitching debut in Friday night's 16-0 rout of the Mets with a three-run homer. But Franco, who moved from third base to the mound in the ninth, came back to strike out Andruw Jones to end Atlanta's scoring.
Jones, offering an explanation for striking out against a guy throwing 81 m.p.h. meatballs, said, "See, I take pitchers deep, I don't take position players deep. I was tired of swinging the bat."
BY THE NUMBERS:
Friday's victory marked the Braves' largest shutout win since Sept. 12, 1952 when they beat the Pirates 16-0 in what turned out to be their final month playing as the Boston Braves. ... Atlanta's pitchers entered Saturday's game with a league-best .206 batting average. The N.L. average for pitchers is .152. Braves pitchers are actually better hitters this season than Dodgers catchers (.204) and Yankees left fielders (.204).
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