MIAMI - Winning pitcher, Greg Maddux.
We didn't see those words at all after Aug. 22 last year, including three starts in the postseason, one of the longest winless stretches of the Braves ace's career.
Friday night, in his 2002 debut, Maddux came off the disabled list and eased worries about his sore back, holding the Florida Marlins scoreless for five innings as the Braves edged past .500 with a 2-0 win before a crowd of 12,066 at Pro Player Stadium.
"It's big for team morale," said Chipper Jones, the struggling left fielder who delivered the game's only runs with a first-inning home run. "Now that we know Greg will be going out there every fifth day, it's a nice luxury to have."
Said John Smoltz, who got the last six outs for his second save, "It means more than Greg Maddux winning a baseball game. Him coming back is one thing. But him and (Tom) Glavine providing the innings really makes our staff a lot better."
Maddux, who missed his first two starts with an inflamed nerve in his lower back, came away with his 258th win with splendid assistance from the bullpen. Mike Remlinger struck out two of the three batters he faced in the sixth, and Tim Spooneybarger worked out of a jam in the seventh.
There was also some nifty glove work by the Braves' middle infielders, shortstop Rafael Furcal and second baseman Marcus Giles, who turned five double plays, including a rally-busting twin killing in the seventh after Spooneybarger walked the first two batters he faced.
The eighth began with Kerry Ligtenberg walking the first two hitters, and Braves manager Bobby Cox turned to Smoltz, who coaxed leadoff Andy Fox to hit into a double play that extinguished the Marlins' last legitimate chance of the game.
"Smoltz saved our bacon," Cox said.
The last time Jones saw Josh Beckett they were in Carrizo Springs, Texas, where Jones has a 4,000-acre ranch. Beckett, Florida's 21-year-old righthander, has a 1,700-acre spread in nearby Spring, and when they bumped into each other at the Mi Casa Steak House last winter, Jones bought the kid a beer.
"We talked about our ranches, and a little baseball," Jones said.
They renewed acquaintances when Beckett served up Jones' long ball in the first inning, a 349-foot line drive into the first row of the right field seats to make it 2-0.
The Braves, who were limited to eight hits, advanced just two other runners beyond first base before Beckett left after six innings with a blister on his right index finger.
"Beckett has the total package," Jones said. "He really didn't make all that many mistakes tonight."
Maddux, who has been the major league's best pitcher for the last 10 years, gave up a hit in each of the first four innings. He was greeted in the first by Fox's soft single, but induced Alex Gonzalez to hit into a double play.
In the second, center fielder Andruw Jones leaped at the wall to spoil Cliff Floyd's bid for a home run, then Mike Lowell lined a single to right, and Kevin Millar, who tapped into three double plays, rolled to Giles, who started another twin killing.
"I didn't think my command was that good," said Maddux, who improved to 13-5 against the Marlins. "It was inconsistent, but at least I was wild out of the strike zone."
More defensive magic from Giles helped Maddux avert trouble in the fourth, an inning that began with a walk to Preston Wilson. Lowell singled, then Giles gloved Millar's tapper at second base and relayed the ball to first for the night's third double play.
"One inning in 27 days," Cox said, assessing Maddux's performance. "I can't even say he was rusty. He's a remarkable athlete, he really is."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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